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Panel Cuts $800 Million in Stealth Bomber Funds

June 29, 1989|MELISSA HEALY | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The House Armed Services Committee Wednesday scrambled the Bush Administration's proposed $300-billion defense budget for next year, restoring programs slated for cancellation by the Pentagon and slicing $800 million from the B-2 stealth bomber production program.

In doing so, it defied both its chairman, Rep. Les Aspin (D-Wis.), and Defense Secretary Dick Cheney.

After a long session marked by haggling among committee members, Aspin proposed undoing the day's work in what some lawmakers called a "King of the Hill" amendment. Aspin asked that the committee adopt the Pentagon's proposed $69-billion arms production budget request as it had been submitted to Congress.

However, his amendment was rejected in a dramatic 26-26 vote, handing both Aspin and Cheney a major defeat. Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.) and Rep. Ronald V. Dellums (D-Berkeley) passed during the roll call on the amendment but then cast "no" votes that resulted in the tie and the amendment's defeat.

Lawmakers repeatedly cut into the Air Force's controversial stealth bomber program in an effort to increase spending for other projects without increasing the $300-billion budget.

Rep. G. V. (Sonny) Montgomery (D-Miss.), in a successful effort to increase purchasing funds for the National Guard and reserves, offered a provision that would take $500 million from the stealth bomber's $2.7-billion production budget. The panel voted also to direct the Air Force to shift $300 million in B-2 production funds into the aircraft's research and development budget.

The aircraft's R&D fund would remain at the level initially requested by the Air Force, however, because the committee had taken $300 million from the bomber's development Tuesday.

If approved by the full House and adopted by the Senate, the stealth cutbacks would force Northrop Corp., which is building the aircraft, to scale back its planned production of three airplanes in 1990. It might also force the company to reduce its advance purchases of parts and equipment for the bomber.

No Test Flights

In defending their votes to take production funds from the stealth bomber, several lawmakers have argued that it would be premature to begin high rates of production for the aircraft, which has not yet made its first flight. The plane's flight tests have been delayed repeatedly because of technical problems.

The bomber's price, now expected to soar well over $500 million apiece, also has stirred concern on Capitol Hill. But defenders of the program argue that the craft will bring revolutionary capabilities to the nation's bomber force and warn that efforts to slow the program will only increase its final cost.

The B-2 is designed to penetrate Soviet airspace to hunt down and destroy the Soviets' mobile missiles and the command bunkers into which Soviet leaders would retreat in periods of international crisis. Its "flying-wing" design and special coatings would allow the craft to elude Soviet radar while it streaks over the Soviet homeland.

B-1 Bomber Troubled

The Air Force fears that, without the stealth bomber, it will lose its ability to threaten such targets after the mid- to late 1990s. The troubles plaguing the B-1 bomber, which critics believe would have problems penetrating Soviet airspace, have added urgency to the development of the stealth bomber.

The bill approved by the committee, which is expected to come to the House floor after members return from their Fourth of July recess, gives new life to two programs that Cheney had proposed to terminate in a recent budget-cutting drive.

The committee bill would restore funds for the development of a unique tilt-rotor aircraft called the V-22 Osprey and for the continued production of the Navy's F-14D fighter aircraft.

The bill would also transfer $1.2 billion from a wide range of Army and Air Force programs--including the B-2 bomber--into equipment purchases for the Guard and reserves.

In a 45-5 vote, the Democrat-controlled panel gave final approval to earlier action cutting $1.1 billion from the Bush Administration's $4.9-billion "Star Wars" request. But the panel rejected an amendment that would have denied the Administration its requests to begin production of a new rail-basing plan for the 10-warhead MX missile and to accelerate development of the small mobile missile widely known as Midgetman.

Members warned that they would seek a further cut of $700 million in the "Star Wars" research budget when the bill reaches the House floor. Lawmakers have proposed using the additional savings to fund cleanup of the Energy Department's troubled nuclear weapons complex, to fight drug smuggling and to strengthen non-nuclear military forces.

The full House is expected to act on the bill during the week of July 23. Members said that they would pose further challenges then to the Administration's proposed nuclear missile programs, as well as to the B-2 bomber.

"It's not the end of the war, but it will be difficult for the House to change things, since this is the committee bill," said Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.), who spearheaded efforts to restore funds for the V-22 and the F-14D aircraft.

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