WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Dick Cheney today proposed cuts of $14.3 billion in the embattled B-2 Stealth bomber program as part of a $34.8-billion package of warplane reductions aimed at taking advantage of warming East-West relations.
Cheney, in testimony before the House Armed Services Committee, said he would cut the number of Stealth bombers to 75 planes rather than the 132 originally planned over the life of the program being developed by Century City-based Northrop Corp.
The sleek, black bat-wing Stealth, at $530 million, is the most expensive aircraft ever.
Cheney announced the proposals to the House Armed Services Committee, and several members expressed surprise, saying the high cost of fewer B-2 bombers would drive the cost of each one up to $815 million.
Cheney said if the B-2 force were cut to as few as 30 planes, as some critics have proposed, "it isn't much good to you, frankly."
He said two B-2 groups of 30 bombers would each be required for a credible bomber force and another 15 would be needed to maintain the two full wings.
Northrop Corp.'s first Stealth test model flew for the first time last year and is scheduled for deployment later this decade.
Critics in Congress say the plane, with its chief mission the delivery of nuclear warheads deep into Soviet territory, is not needed and would cost its weight in gold.
Cheney also proposed cuts and delays in five other aircraft programs and said all the reductions would reduce President Bush's $306.9-billion defense request for next year by $2.4 billion and $34.8 billion through 1997.
He also said that U.S. budget strains may require reducing the present 14 U.S. aircraft carriers to 12 but that no final decision has been made.
Cheney proposed that 120 C-17 transport planes rather than the 210 originally planned be bought to replace the aging C-141 transport. The $200-million plane is built by the McDonnell Douglas Corp.
He also proposed that the top-secret Navy A-12 attack plane program be cut to a minimum of 620 from the 858 originally planned. Some estimates say the plane would cost more than $106 million each as a replacement for the aging A-6 attack bomber.
Cheney proposed delay in production of the Air Force version of the A-12, the advanced tactical aircraft, until after 1997. It would have the same long-range attack mission as the present F-111 bomber and the F-15 fighter plane.
McDonnell Douglas and General Dynamics are jointly developing the plane.
The reduction proposals represented the strongest sign yet that the Pentagon might be willing to contribute to the "peace dividend" offered by the lessening of East-West tensions.
Cheney said the cut in the Stealth would shave $14.3 billion off the more than $70-billion cost of the B-2 program. But while announcing the cut, he issued a plea to save the bomber from being killed entirely.
He told the committee that the B-2 is the only U.S. bomber that would be able to evade improving Soviet radar and weapon defenses in the next century for bombing raids in a war.