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SENATE AIMS TO KEEP B-2 BOMBERS GOING

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Showing an ability to evade congressional opposition as well as enemy radar, the B-2 "stealth" bomber is making a comeback this week.

A draft of the Senate Armed Services Committee's proposed 1995 defense budget being considered would include money to keep the B-2 program going, according to congressional and industry sources. If approved by the full Senate, the proposal sets up a fight with the House and the Clinton administration over the $900 million plane.In an indication that senators are concerned that the Clinton administration is allowing the nation's bomber force to atrophy, the committee draft also rejects an administration plan to reduce the aging fleet of B-52s, according to Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D.

The sources said that Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., chairman of the Armed Services Committee, and Sen. James Exon, D-Neb., who heads a key subcommittee, support additional funds for the bomber. The committee is expected to make its bill public Friday.

The draft bill includes $150 million in a "bomber industrial base" account to ensure that key subcontractors and suppliers keep their B-2 operations going, according to the sources. Although the money would buy no bombers, it would keep the production and supplier network alive.

"The B-2 still shows more ability to penetrate the U.S. Treasury than enemy air defenses," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.

Leahy and other critics argue that the B-2, with its flying-wing profile and composite skin, was designed mainly to drop nuclear weapons on the now-defunct Soviet Union. Congress last year agreed to Leahy's proposal to buy no more than the 20 B-2s already on order.

Defense Secretary William Perry told lawmakers earlier this year the Pentagon "is not pursuing any plans for the procurement of additional B-2s."

But Northrop Grumman Corp., prime contractor for the B-2, has lobbied aggressively, saying that without more money, some suppliers would close their B-2 operations. That would greatly increase the price of a B-2 if Congress later decided to order more planes.

At Northrop alone, some 11,000 jobs in the Los Angeles area depend on the B-2, and thousands more work for subcontractors.