Staying unstealthy

President Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld have promised to revamp and restructure the U.S. military for the twenty-first century. Speculation says the administration’s forthcoming proposals will aim at more efficient and flexible armed forces. Our technological age and the changing nature of the threats facing the nation demand new thinking and innovative capabilities.

In that light, it was a surprise to learn that Rumsfeld is thinking about buying forty new B-2 "stealth" bombers. Yes, those B-2s. The B-2s they stopped building four years ago.

The B-2, you may remember, is the black, bat-winged aircraft whose claim to fame was that it could not be detected by enemy radar. Its other claim to fame is that it is the world’s most expensive plane. Congress bought twenty, at $2.2-billion apiece, before throwing up its hands in exasperation in 1993. Not only were the planes ludicrously expensive to buy, but also ludicrously expensive to maintain. The Air Force currently spends $140 million a year trying to keep the planes in flying condition. A small army of one thousand maintenance workers is assigned the task. Worse, the "stealth" bomber proved to be a lot less stealthy than anticipated. The slightest imperfection in its famous "skin" made it quite detectable by enemy radar, and repairing that skin is (you guessed it) expensive and time consuming. Nor is the plane useful in daylight hours. In fact, during the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, the B-2 could only fly missions at night. During the day it’s color and size made it stick out like a budget-overrun.

So why buy more of what looks like one of the great military boondoggles? Well, the B-2’s manufacturer is now offering the bombers at a mere $735 million each.

Who could resist such a bargain?

Published in the 2001-07-13 issue: 
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