"I look on any program to bridge the gap between the B-1 and the Advanced Technology Bomber as an insurance policy," said Rep. Hunter, a member of the House Armed Services Committee. "We may also end up slowing down production of the 100 B-1s and buying more of them to keep the program alive."
The stealth is based on a variety of new technologies to enable it to elude detection by radar. Its very aerodynamic configuration represents such a major leap in aircraft design that it carries significant risks.
Prototypes of the B-1 were flight-tested for more than four years before production was started, but the stealth bomber is expected to enter production with substantially less testing. Some experts say that the program is being rushed to meet schedules designed to head off the B-1.
"I have enough hunches that the Advanced Technology Bomber doesn't cut the mustard to be suggesting that we keep a production capability to produce more B-1s," said Rep. Mike Synar, (D-Okla.). "If ATB does not fly, we have to get a bomber into the Air Force fleet until it does fly. The B-1 is such a bomber."
Air Force officials, discounting the possibility of such a catastrophic blunder as building an airplane that does not fly, are attempting to reassure Congress that the stealth's risks have been significantly reduced. Nonetheless, the secrecy shrouding the program has created many doubters.
Citing the program's secret status, a Northrop spokesman said he could make no comment on the matter. Northrop employs more than 8,000 workers at its Pico Rivera plant and another 1,500 in Palmdale at a new assembly plant directly across a runway from the B-1 bomber plant.
Critic of Price
Synar, whose home district is near a B-1 plant, is a vocal critic of the stealth bomber's price, asserting that the planes will cost $600 million each, more than double the B-1's $275 million price. "What we are talking about in the Advanced Technology Bomber," Synar said, "is the most expensive weapon program in the history of this nation."
Glenn has also asserted that the Air Force has engaged in "patently absurd" cost comparisons between the stealth and the B-1, disguising the stealth's true costs. Demands for declassification of the aircraft's cost are gaining momentum in Congress among both supporters and opponents of the stealth program.
"Lacking such declassification, . . . I intend to vote against providing for any funding for the ATB program," Glenn said in a letter to Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Rockwell faces a difficult challenge in winning additional funding, but it has strong support scattered among an unusual group of liberals and conservatives. For example, late last year, eight conservative senators wrote a letter to President Reagan calling for production of 100 additional B-1s.
The outcome of the fight is difficult to predict, however, because the armed services committees have not begun their debate on the fiscal 1987 defense budget. "So, there is no direct judgment one can make," one congressional staffer said. "There is a lot of noise about it, though."
The B-1's geographically dispersed employment has historically created a broad base of political support. The stealth also has been an easy target for opponents, because its secret status has prevented Northrop from fighting back.
Much of Rockwell's success in picking up congressional support is due to its performance on its existing contract for the 100 B-1s. "It is a tremendous success story," Iacobellis said unabashedly.
At the firm's huge Palmdale assembly complex, Rockwell has just completed assembly of bomber No. 32 and is rapidly building up to its so-called rate production, a maximum of four aircraft per month.
The Air Force has never before structured an aircraft program to build up production so quickly and then drop off so precipitously.
"It is a very weird way to build airplanes," said Stewart, the retired Air Force general. "Everybody associated with building aircraft looks with horror at this production schedule, building up to four a month and then stopping so suddenly."
A Major Challenge
At the rate of four aircraft per month, Rockwell will be delivering $1.1 billion worth of product monthly. Moving that much material in a coordinated manner has been a major challenge in the B-1 program.
Six months ago, Rockwell had built only a few B-1s after four years of work. Production of four aircraft per month is not a rapid pace in itself, but to sharply accelerate production to that rate in so little time has left no room for error or schedule slippage.
Three years ago, for example, Rockwell scheduled parts production on each of hundreds of automated machine tools for every hour of every day at its plants in El Segundo. Production of those parts will be completed by October.