Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle The Flying Sausage

By Robert Bryce

MARCH 2, 1998:  It's time to face the facts: The B-1 bomber has been a failure. The most recent crash of a B-1, on February 18 in rural Kentucky, adds to the growing mountain of evidence that the supersonic ground-hugging bomber is an unsafe, unreliable, hyper-expensive plane with negligible military value. Yet, the $280 million-per-copy airplane keeps flying because it is powered by the most potent fuel in Washington: pork. And much of that bacon has been brought home to Texas. Dyess Air Force Base in Abilene - the home base of the plane that crashed in Kentucky - has 40 of the nation's 93 remaining B-1s. And Dyess, which also houses C-130 cargo planes, has a $300 million impact on the town's economy. Texas politicos like U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (a member of the Armed Services Committee) and Rep. Charles Stenholm, whose district contains Dyess, have been staunch B-1 boosters. Last July, they secured $20.5 million in new construction funds for family housing and a new B-1 maintenance facility at Dyess.

Killed by Jimmy Carter and revived by Ronald Reagan, the B-1 has always been closely tied to Texas: John Tower, the late U.S. senator from Wichita Falls, was a booster of the plane from its earliest stages; LTV Corporation built the B-1's fuselage at its plant in Dallas; Hans Mark, the former Secretary of the Air Force and, more recently, former Chancellor of the University of Texas, has been credited with resurrecting the plane after Carter canceled it in 1977.

Never used in combat, the B-1 has been in the trauma ward ever since the first one arrived in Abilene on June 29, 1985. Its engines have exploded or refused to start, its fuel tanks have leaked, its radar system didn't work, its avionics were incompatible, and its skeleton developed premature cracks. Those problems appear to have been fixed. But upgrading the planes with modern weapons and electronics systems will cost another $3 billion. In the meantime, the plane is costing a fortune. According to the Air Force, the plane costs $10,986 per hour to stay aloft, an amount surpassed only by the equally useless $2 billion-per-copy B-2 bomber, which costs about $14,000 per hour.

The General Accounting Office has continually uncovered cost over-runs, and safety- and mission-related problems with the B-1. In 1994, a GAO official told a congressional committee that "the jury is still out on the question of just how effective the B-1B aircraft will be as a conventional bomber." Another report that year found that the plane could not fly effectively in cold, wet weather because it did not have a de-icing system.

In 1995, Undersecretary of Defense Paul Kaminski gave ammunition to the B-1's critics when he said the Pentagon was considering "retiring immediately" the entire B-1 force. A 1996 GAO report found that retiring the B-1s "would save about $5.9 billion in budget authority for fiscal years 1997 to 2001." (That's roughly equivalent to the entire annual budget of the Environmental Protection Agency). While admitting that the move would "increase U.S. forces' dependency on other capabilities and therefore the risk that some targets might not be hit as quickly as desired" the GAO said the Pentagon has "more than ample ground-attack capability." In addition, it said, most targets "would be within the range of other forward-based tactical aviation assets and missiles." Last September, the GAO determined that the Air Force had overpaid a contractor who was performing maintenance on the B-1 by $10 million.

Money and tactics aside, the bomber is hopelessly unsafe. While all four crew members involved in the Kentucky accident managed to eject without injury, four other officers were killed in a B-1 that crashed in Montana last September, in an accident the Air Force blamed on the pilot. In 1992, another B-1 crashed near Valentine, killing all four aboard. All three of these accidents occurred during routine, low-altitude flights. According to U.S. Air Force statistics, in fact, the B-1 is three times more likely to be involved in serious accidents or crashes than the rest of the airplanes in the fleet. The lifetime rate for "Class A" mishaps - accidents involving loss of life or $1 million in damage - for the B-1 is 4.02 occurences per 100,000 flying hours; the current rate for the Air Force overall is 1.37. And the destroyed aircraft rate for the lifetime of the B-1 is 2.13, compared to an overall rate of 0.79 for the current fiscal year.

The Air Force recently bragged that the B-1 has been deployed to Southwest Asia in the ongoing effort to punish Saddam Hussein. But the B-1s won't be used. That is, unless the U.S. decides to give up its vaunted "smart" weapons and begin carpet bombing. The B-1 wasn't built to stop Saddam's bluster. It was built to drop nuclear warheads on the Kremlin. So at present, the B-1 is capable of carrying only unguided 500-pound bombs, munitions that have been in the American arsenal for decades. Given the American military's desire for a "surgical strike" on Saddam's weapons factories, the B-1s will undoubtedly remain on the tarmac if, and when, diplomacy gives way to a military assault.

The B-1 is supposed to replace the B-52, which has been in service since 1952. But the old B-52 is more reliable, more versatile, and a helluva lot safer than the B-1. (It has a mishap rate one third that of the B-1.) In 1996, when the U.S. last dropped bombs in Saddam's backyard, the Pentagon relied on sea-launched cruise missiles, and cruise missiles launched from a B-52 flying out of an air base in Diego Garcia, in the Indian Ocean.

Of course, even without the B-1, the U.S. military has far more war-making capability than any of our adversaries - a 1996 study by the Center for Defense Information found that the U.S. has 3.5 times more military airplanes than Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, and Syria combined. Yet despite all these facts, Texas politicians like Stenholm want to keep the B-1 flying. In a statement issued two days after the crash, Stenholm said, "In spite of this incident, the B-1 remains the backbone of our bomber fleet." And he added that funding for the B-1 upgrade "reinforces the Air Force's commitment to this important air power asset."

But it may be time to listen to the people on the ground, instead of the politicians. The Associated Press quoted Randy Rushing, a volunteer firefighter who was one of the first on the scene at the Kentucky crash site. Rushing picked up the B-1's co-pilot after he found him in a field. "He mainly said that something went haywire," Rushing told the AP.

Clearly, something has gone haywire. It's called pork barrel politics. And the B-1 bomber is the most disturbing example of politicos pushing pork over military readiness and protection.

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