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

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Frosty Reaction. Never before has a President canceled so large a weapon system so close to production. But the crash of the B-1 has far wider ramifications than just the fate of 244 planes. For one thing, the Air Force had looked on the B-1 as a way to stave off until almost the 21st century the day when the manned bomber will be obsolete. For another. Carter's decision may make it harder to negotiate with the Soviets for a new treaty to limit strategic nuclear weapons. The reason: by dropping the B1, he is dramatically increasing U.S. reliance on the cruise missile, which the Russians view as the most worrisome threat in the American arsenal. The initial Soviet reaction to Carter's move was frosty. Commented Tass, the official Russian news agency: "The implementation of these militaristic plans has seriously complicated efforts for the limitation of the strategic arms race." Although the U.S. has proposed to the Soviets that air-launched cruise missiles be limited to a range of 1,500 miles, Carter may now come under pressure from the Air Force and hawks in Congress to extend that range.

For the short run, his decision means that the Air Force will end up with only four test models of the B-1—three have been built and a fourth will be completed in 1979—at a total cost of $4 billion. Three additional production models now under construction will probably be scrapped. The test models will be flown for several years, primarily to refine ultrasophisticated gear that jams enemy radar. This will make it easier to design manned bombers of the future—if any are built—that can penetrate enemy air defenses. Also, continuing the research will leave open Carter's option to change his mind in the event that technological breakthroughs or international political developments make the B-1 more attractive.

Carter ordered the Pentagon to speed up by three years research and development of the Air Force version of the cruise missile so that it can be fully deployed by about 1983. How many B-52s will be modified—at an estimated $700,000 each, plus the cost of the missiles—is unknown. The prime candidates are the 240 "G" and "H" models that have been built since 1959. The remaining 90 B-52s are up to 21 years old. The cost of refitting the B-52s will soak up much of the money saved by abandoning the B1. The rest of the money may well be diverted to other military projects or used to shrink budget deficits.

Nobody was more surprised by Carter's decision than members of Congress. Like nearly everyone else in Washington, most had expected him to take the easy way out and compromise with the B-1 proponents by approving production of at least a limited number of the planes. Especially pleased were Carter's liberal critics within his own party. Senator Gary Hart of Colorado called the decision "encouraging and wise." Senator George McGovern of South Dakota, who said in May that he could see little difference between Carter and a Republican President, praised him for "prudence, leadership and courage."

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