The Multinational Monitor


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The B-2 Boondoggle

AS THE MONITOR GOES TO PRESS, the U.S. Congress appears headed for a showdown vote on the fate of Northrop-Grumman's B-2 bomber, the single most expensive piece of military equipment ever designed, with a per unit price of about $2 billion. Congress has already allocated $44 billion for the project, a figure that exceeds the annual defense budget for all but four nations in the world (England, France, Japan and Germany). Now, hawks in the House led by Representative Norm Dicks of Washington state -- a major recipient of campaign cash from Boeing, a B-2 subcontractor -- are trying to win another $9 billion for the bomber. The Senate has voted to cap production at the current level of 20. A conference committee will soon resolve the issue.

When Northrop was awarded the B-2 contract in 1981, the company and the Pentagon promised that its stealth technology would make it invisible to enemy radar. But stealth has never been shown to work. A Pentagon source who has reviewed classified data calls stealth "the biggest fraud ever perpetrated on the American public." He says that during the Gulf War, British destroyers picked up stealth crafts from 40 miles away. U.S. radar identified them at up to five times that distance.

Stealth is not the B-2's only problem. A 1995 GAO report found that the bomber's radar system malfunctions, and that it is unable to distinguish between a mountain and a rain cloud. Hence, when the weather is overcast, the B-2 tends to "hug" to clouds, instead of flying low to the ground as intended. The same GAO report concluded, "After 14 years of development ... including six years of flight testing, the Air Force has yet to demonstrate that the B-2 design will meet some of its most important mission requirements."

Last April 1, the B-2 was finally certified as combat ready. Six B-2s were immediately put on active duty. On April 2, a shaft assembly in one of the engines of one of the planes cracked and the B-2 was swiftly withdrawn from the active roster. This did not prevent Grumman from taking out ads in major newspapers saying that the B-2 was fit for action.

The B-2 boondoggle lives on because of the hugely expensive and multi-pronged lobbying campaign implemented by Northrop over the years. Northrop's top in-house lobbyist on the B-2 is Robert Helm, a former Pentagon comptroller. He joined the company in 1994, replacing Togo West, who had been named secretary of the army. Northrop has also retained a fleet of outside lobbyists, led by the well-connected Republican Michael Balzano.

Northrop has doled out vast billions in work to subcontractors, located in 46 states and 383 congressional districts. Fourteen suppliers build the airframe and 25 firms make the electronic systems. In short, there's a bit of pork for everybody, whether it's the $791 million in contracts spread across Texas or the $100,000 for West Virginia, where IMO Industries in Huntington makes clamps for the bomber.

As a result, Northrop can rely on a vast network of subcontractors to lobby for the plane's survival. During one crucial vote in 1995, Northrop brought together hundreds of CEOs from the subcontractors, who fanned out across the Capitol to press home state lawmakers. Subcontractors have also helped arrange letter-writing campaigns, with workers at individual companies pressed to write members of Congress in support of keeping the production lines open.

Nor has Northrop skimped when it came to larding out campaign contributions to members of Congress. During the 1996 election cycle, the company poured more than $700,000 into political campaigns. About $80,000 of that was dispensed in June, the month that Congress voted -- by a margin of 213 to 210 -- to provide additional money for the B-2. Northrop's 213 allies had received an average of $2,073 in PAC money from the company in 1996, while B-2 opponents received an average of a mere $113.

No member of Congress has been a bigger backer of the B-2 than Representative Dicks, who took in $10,000 from Northrop, the maximum allowed, during the last election cycle. Dicks even took advantage of the 1996 incident in which Scott O'Grady was shot down during a reconnaissance flight in Bosnia to seek support for his pet bomber. Dicks claimed that if the B-2 had been in the U.S. arsenal at the time, this tragic event might not have taken place -- though it stretches credibility to argue the Air Force would use a $2 billion plane for a simple reconnaissance mission.

To provide further firepower on Capitol Hill, Northrop has wheeled out Chuck Horner, the retired Air Force official who designed the Gulf War air campaign and who is revered by members of Congress. Horner, who is paid for his time by Northrop, has testified several times before Congress about the B-2's awesome capabilities.

Public opinion has also been targeted by defense intellectuals who have economic links to the arms maker. The foremost public proponent of the B-2 is Loren Thompson of the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution in Arlington -- a think tank that is funded by Northrop and other weapons makers -- who produces a steady stream of pro-B-2 op-ed articles and is regularly quoted in the press. He also is a regular witness before Congressional panels. He told one committee in 1997 that the B-2 is a miracle plane that can "fly anywhere in the world within a few hours, safely penetrate modern air defenses and precisely destroy up to 16 separate targets with minimum collateral damage" -- even though the B-2 has yet to fly a single combat mission.

Despite all of Northrop's firepower, the B-2 appears headed for the scrap heap of history. Don't uncork the champagne yet, though. B-2 opponents have on several occasions promised they had the votes to kill the program, only to see Northrop's lobbyists turn the tide at the last minute. Because it has thus far escaped the stake to the heart, Representative John Kasich, R-Ohio, has dubbed the B-2 the "Dracula" bomber.

-- Ken Silverstein

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