Gold-Plated Weapons

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The stunning costs of loading weapons systems with the latest in sophisticated technology, and the long production delays that result from this endless "improvement," might be tolerable if U.S. military forces in the end were equipped with the very finest weapons, or at least ones that could do the job. But all too often the gold-plated armaments bring embarrassingly small improvements in fighting capability. Sometimes, in fact, older, simpler and vastly cheaper weapons work as well or better. Military reformers cite numerous examples. Here are four:

B-52 vs. B-1B. Much of the debate about the B-1B intercontinental bomber revolves around price: Will the 100 new bombers that the Air Force wants to buy cost $200 million each, as the Pentagon figures, $285 million each, as a team of retired generals who studied Air Force procurement guesses, some figure in between or possibly something even higher? But there is another, at least equally troubling, question: Will the most expensive plane ever built—and the B-1Bs will be that by anyone's estimate—do a significantly better job of penetrating Soviet air defenses in case of nuclear war than the aging (20 years and up) but still quite serviceable B-52s that they will replace?

Too many of the test data are still secret for a definitive answer to be given, but some experts who have seen the results are gravely worried. They say the B-1B has poor acceleration and little maneuverability ("Worse than the B-52," charges one critic) and that its range is less than the 7,455 miles planned. One objection to the B-52s is that because of their age it is getting increasingly difficult to keep them ready for combat. But early data indicate that the B-1B, because of its complexity, also would face severe maintenance problems. The Air Force contends that the B-52 presents too broad a "cross section" for Soviet radar. Critics doubt that the B-1B design will fool Soviet radar either. Worse, they charge, the B-1B's own terrain-following radar, which it uses to navigate to the target, will send out what amounts to a beacon that enemy fighters and missiles can home in on. The doubters concede the B-1B's advanced avionics gear will do a better job of jamming Soviet radar, but add that the same avionics could be put aboard B-52s at a small cost. In sum, whatever edge the B-1B might have over the B-52 would be purchased at an exorbitant cost for a few years between 1985, when large-scale deliveries would begin, and the early 1990s, when an all-new Stealth bomber could be available.

The M113 vs. the Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle. The M113 armored personnel carrier has been the U.S. Army's "battlefield taxi" since 1960. It hauls troops to the action, but they have to jump out and fight on foot. Army planners wanted the infantry to ride right into battle alongside tanks, so they designed the Bradley. The Army plans to buy 6,882 at a cost of $1,947,000 each, vs. about $80,000 for an M113.

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