DEFENSE: Carter's Big Decision: Down Goes the B-1, Here Comes the Cruise

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Carter's Big Decision: Down Goes the B1, Here Comes the Cruise

An Air Force colonel at the Pentagon wisecracked that the U.S. might eventually have to "charter an air force from Pan Am." Better yet, said another, in case of conflict "we could subcontract the whole war." Still others joked bitterly about how the service had suffered "its highest attrition rate ever on a single day."

At aerospace plants across the country, the mood was no less sulfurous. "A great surprise and deep shock," said Bastian ("Buz") Hello, B-1 division manager of Rockwell International, prime contractor for the program. The champagne bottles that had been chilled in anticipation of a celebration remained corked. The gates that were about to swing open to thousands of new employees stayed closed. Many of the 40,000 executives, technicians and assembly-line workers already assigned to the B-1 from Long Island and Cincinnati to Los Angeles and Seattle talked gloomily of hunting for new jobs. The probability that lots of them would eventually find work on other military projects did little to soften the blow. Said one official at Rockwell's sprawling Los Angeles plant: "This was the best-kept secret since the atom bomb. And that's the way it hits us."

Such was the military-industrial reaction last week to Jimmy Carter's stunning and almost wholly unexpected decision to kill the Air Force's request for 244 swing-wing B-1 bombers. The B-1s were to have replaced the aging U.S. fleet of 330 B-52s—a few of which are older than some of the men who fly aboard them. In contrast, there was jubilation among liberals like New York Representative Jonathan Bingham and Wisconsin Senator William Proxmire. who have long argued that the B-1 is an outlandishly expensive dinosaur. Iowa Democrat John Culver, a leading Senate opponent of the B1, elatedly called Carter's move a "victory for common sense—the most constructive and courageous decision on military spending in our time."

Too Many Bucks. Carter had promised during the campaign that he would kill the B1. Just a year ago, he told the Democratic Platform Committee: "The B-1 bomber is an example of a proposed system which should not be funded and would be wasteful of taxpayers' dollars." But after his election last November, he somehow managed to give nearly all the people connected with the decision the impression that he would change his mind. To their astonishment, he declared firmly at his press conference last week that, at more than $100 million per bomber, the B-1 was both unnecessary and too expensive. In effect, he decided that the bang required too many bucks.

As an alternative, Carter ordered the Air Force to load its newest weapon, the comparatively cheap (less than $1 million each) and deadly accurate cruise missile, aboard modified B-52s. He left open the possibility of putting cruise missiles aboard modified C-5A Galaxy transports and military versions of the Boeing 747. Pentagon planners estimate that Carter's plan could cost, overall, at least 20% less than building the B-1 and that it will give the U.S. just as good a capability of penetrating Soviet air defenses (see box).

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