Two primary lessons can be drawn from the U.S. Air Force's astounding successes in the war with Iraq. But only one of them is being talked about.
The first lesson is being shouted from the rooftops: Stealth technology works. The F-117 Stealth fighter appeared to work brilliantly in the gulf, scoring direct hits on numerous targets in the heart of Iraq without suffering a single loss to enemy fire.The second lesson is being conveniently forgotten: We don't need a new bomber.
The 30-year-old B-52 bomber also performed brilliantly in the gulf war, waging a devastating attack on Iraq's elite Republican Guard and other troops for weeks without losing a single plane in combat. In fact, the B-52 was far more responsible than the F-117 for turning the final allied assault on Kuwait into a rout. In addition to nearly 200 B-52 workhorses, we have in our arsenal 97 modern B-1 bombers.
The Air Force is employing the first lesson, and avoiding the second, to argue that the United States should buy an extraordinarily expensive new Stealth aircraft, the B-2 bomber, for future conventional (non-nuclear) wars.
This argument is fundamentally flawed. The B-2 and the F-117 are two completely different types of aircraft with different missions. The F-117 is a conventional fighter/attack aircraft designed mainly for precision ("surgical") strikes against well-defended, hardened targets. The primary role of the much larger B-2 is to threaten nuclear attack on the Soviet Union.
The reality is that Air Force commanders would be unlikely to turn to a state-of-the art strategic bomber costing nearly $1 billion per plane to destroy a chemical munitions bunker in Baghdad. Last year, then-Strategic Air Command chief John Chain told Congress, with considerable understatement, "Because of the value of the (B-2), I can't see putting very many at risk in a conventional conflict."
General Chain's judgment is underscored by the array of other conventional aircraft available to do the job, all of which distinguished themselves in recent combat.
In other words, the United States has more than enough air power - and the right kinds of air power - to defeat with dispatch the world's fourth largest military force.
The truth is that congressional support for the B-2 bomber is rapidly evaporating, and linking the B-2 with the celebrated F-117 is yet one more attempt by the B-2's proponents to identify a mission that sounds credible.
One can't blame Congress for its skepticism. During the past decade, Pentagon officials have put forth, then forsaken, a range of missions for the B-2, from bombing Soviet mobile targets (i.e., rail-mounted ICBM missiles) to destroying deeply buried Soviet command shelters to raiding Libya.
The equivocation over mission might not be fatal if not for the bomber's exorbitantly steep cost to the taxpayer. At a total program cost of about $70 billion, the B-2 will cost every American household, on average, $1,000.
Moreover, according to the Congressional Budget Office, if the Pentagon buys the B-2 it won't be able to afford some of the other major advanced weapons systems it wants, such as the C-17 transport aircraft and new-generation replacements for the M-1 tank and Bradley Fighting Vehicle. Thus, the armed services will be prevented from buying advanced weapons systems far more vital to meeting conventional threats in the future with speed and minimal risk to servicemen and women.
(Kevin Knobloch and Michael Brower are with the Union of Concerned Scientists.)