In the first official Pentagon disclosure about the cost of the stealth bomber, Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger told Congress on Tuesday that the still-secret Northrop program will cost $36.6 billion in 1981 dollars for 132 aircraft.
The disclosure, which appears aimed at rebutting recent criticism about the cost and capability of the stealth, comes as Congress is just beginning to debate the 1987 defense budget.
Congress must decide this year whether to end the competing Rockwell International B-1 bomber program after it has produced 100 aircraft and to shift emphasis to the stealth, which is officially known as the Advanced Technology Bomber. Rockwell has been seeking funding to extend its B-1 program.
Stealth bombers, which are intended to operate virtually undetected by enemy radar, would cost about $277 million each and would be deployed by the Air Force in the early 1990s, Weinberger said in a one-page "fact sheet."
The cost estimates assume that all of the aircraft would be paid for in 1981 dollars, an assumption that drew immediate fire from some congressional critics who said it disguises the true cost of the bomber.
Critics contend that the actual cost of the 132 planes will soar to $60 billion or more by the time they are built in the 1990s. For example, if inflation runs at 5% per year for the next decade, the $36.6 billion would rise to $59.6 billion.
"The Pentagon is framing the debate in terms of this $36.6 billion, but that is just not what we are going to be paying for the stealth," an aide to Rep. Mike Synar (D-Okla.) said. "It makes it look cheaper than is going to be the case."
Weinberger said the stealth's cost of $36.6 billion compares to $26.5 billion for the 100 B-1 bombers under production at Rockwell International. The B-1 cost includes $20.5 billion for production in 1981 dollars and $6 billion for research and development.
"Thus," Weinberger said, "the estimated average cost per B-1B is $265 million, and the cost of the far more capable ATB is $277 million for each aircraft."
Weinberger also said that the stealth is on schedule and that the technology of the program is working. He also wrote that, "in terms of mission capability, the ATB's unique low observable characteristics make it far more survivable than the B-1B." Although the new information still limits public insight into the economic impact of the program, it does confirm that the Stealth will have substantial economic and employment impact in the Los Angeles area.
The total anticipated funding for stealth is 38% higher than that for the B-1, which by itself indicates that it will require a work force even larger than that of the huge B-1 program.
Rockwell's employment on the B-1 peaked at about 17,000 at the beginning of this month. It is estimated that employment by subcontractors is another 17,000.
In addition, Northrop is likely to produce more of the stealth's component parts locally than Rockwell's production of B-1 components. The production rates of the two programs would be comparable, with both running dual final assembly lines at Palmdale.