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

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When Harold Brown took office in January, he was leaning toward the B1. Said he: "The big advantage [of a manned bomber] is that it complicates the other side's problems. The question is how much can you afford to pay for that as compared to the other ways you could spend the funds." Brown had served as Air Force Secretary in the Johnson Administration and believed thoroughly in the manned bomber as an essential element of the American strategic triad (the other two: land-launched intercontinental ballistic missiles and sea-launched missiles). Even earlier, as the 33-year-old chief of research for the Pentagon during the Kennedy Administration, Brown had helped to kill the B-1's precursor, the high-flying B-70, as too vulnerable to Soviet air defenses. It was Brown who then ordered up the preliminary studies for the plane that evolved into the B1. This gave him a label that he disowns: "Father of the B-1." Says Brown: "Yes, I started the so-called Advanced Manned Strategic Aircraft Program. But it's a long way from studies to hardware, and I won't take credit or blame for the full gestation and early childhood of that particular offspring."

Sense of Relief. After taking office in January, Brown grew increasingly impressed with the tremendous advances in cruise-missile technology. While he continued to believe that the U.S. should have an effective manned-bomber force, he finally concluded that the B-1 was not indispensable and that the modified B-52 option would do the job as effectively. According to an associate, Brown also quickly picked up signals from Carter about which way the President was leaning. In any event, Powell said, "when the President and Brown sat down, it was clear that each knew the other's point of view and they were the same. The meeting was basically to ratify the decision."

One of the most telling arguments against the B-1 was the enormous projected cost—$24 billion for 244 planes but a total of nearly $100 billion when the price of its nuclear armaments, operating costs over 20 years and inflation were included. A day after Carter's announcement, Brown told a news conference that the B-1 would have been a more attractive option if it had been 30% cheaper.

Carter was also impressed by Pentagon reports that despite the B-1's speed of up to 1,320 m.p.h. and its ability to slip under enemy radar defenses, weapons advances would probably make it vulnerable to Soviet defenses by the 1980s.

Although Carter once predicted that the decision would be a lonely one, the burden did not appear to have weighed heavily on him. Was he relieved to have it done with? Said Powell: "As with any difficult decision, there has to be some sense of relief." Still, Carter's decision will hold only until the refurbished B-52s begin to require replacement. Then the debate over a new generation of bombers, if there is to be one, will resume. Certainly, few in the Air Force would agree that the manned bomber has no future. But this is a problem that Carter, by virtue of his B-1 decision, will be leaving for his successor to resolve.

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