Despite White House Study, Planner Says Pentagon Has Enough B-2s
WASHINGTON (AP) _ Indicating a potential split with the White House, a top Pentagon official said Monday the military has higher priorities than expanding its fleet of costly B-2 bombers.
The comment by Paul Kaminski, undersecretary of defense for acquisition and technology, runs counter to the thrust of a new White House review of the B-2 program ordered by President Clinton. That review, reported last Friday by The Associated Press, seeks to take a ``fresh look″ at a program the administration has opposed for three years.
Specifically, the administration is considering whether to add $800 million to its next defense budget request and more than $1 billion in each of the three subsequent years toward completion of at least five more of the radar-evading bombers.
Kaminski said he stands by his report of last spring that concluded air attack capability can be procured in more cost-effective ways than by expanding the B-2 fleet beyond 20 aircraft now flying or on order.
``Fundamentally, from my perspective, nothing has changed in the underlying foundation of that study,″ Kaminski told reporters at a Pentagon briefing. ``And that study recommended doing other things before building additional B-2s.″
Kaminski added that expanding the B-2 fleet would require either an increase in the defense budget or cuts in other weapons programs.
Asked if he thought the Pentagon was ``out of sync″ with the White House on the B-2, Kaminski said, ``I don’t think so.″ He characterized the White House review as a logical step given the support in Congress for the stealth bomber. Congress this year added $493 million to Clinton’s budget that could go toward expanding the B-2 fleet. It also lifted the cap that had limited the B-2 fleet to 20 planes.
A White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity, emphasized that ``the White House review starts from a neutral point. ... There’s no presumption that we need more B-2 bombers.″
Even a neutral position on the B-2 represents a significant shift for an administration that has fought the airplane doggedly for three years.
Among other indicators the White House is leaning toward buying more B-2s: National security adviser Anthony Lake plans to go to Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo., to view the 10 B-2s now in service; White House chief of staff Leon Panetta met with pro-B-2 lawmakers on Jan. 25 to discuss adding $800 million to Clinton’s budget request; and the official National Security Council position on the B-2 study notes the administration will seek out the views of B-2 supporters.
In addition, defense officials speaking privately have voiced annoyance at the White House request for a second look at the B-2.
The B-2 study may stem in part from Clinton’s eagerness to win next November in California, a state deemed critical to his re-election chances. Northrop Grumman Corp. employs 9,000 people in Southern California assembling the plane.
The option being considered by the administration would involve financing 1.5 B-2s per year as a way to limit the impact on any one year’s defense budget. But Kaminski noted Monday that his study concluded this slow rate of purchase would result in a much higher per-plane cost than buying three B-2s per year.
The study, released last spring, concluded the Pentagon would spend its money more effectively by improving precision-guided bombs used by the B-2 and by upgrading the B-1 bomber.