In a major White House decision that could lift the fortunes of the B-2 Stealth bomber program, President Clinton agreed Wednesday to order one additional B-2 from Northrop Grumman Corp., a senior administration official said.
The decision, scheduled to be announced today by the Defense Department, is certain to become a potent factor in this election-year political battle over whether to build more of the controversial and costly bombers.
Clinton delivered what seemed to be a lethal blow to the B-2 program in early February, when he said he would not order additional bombers beyond the 20 currently on order at a cost of $2.2 billion each.
But since then, he has attempted to appease B-2 supporters by assuring them that the decision was not an abandonment of the program and that the administration remains open to the recommendations of a new study to appear later this year on whether the nation needs more bombers.
The most important aspect of Wednesday's decision is that it essentially endorses the idea long espoused by B-2 proponents that additional bombers carry a military value rather than serving merely as political pork.
"It is a very, very important decision," said Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.), one of the aircraft's most ardent supporters. "I am much more optimistic about this program than I have been at any other time."
The one additional bomber ordered by Clinton will not be built from scratch, but rather be converted from a bare-bones test vehicle into a fully outfitted war plane.
Nonetheless, the project will preserve some of the dwindling jobs at B-2 suppliers and maintain the industrial capability to build more planes, allowing supporters to continue to wage the political battle for up to 20 additional bombers.
Separately, Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) appears to be positioning his presidential campaign toward endorsing the purchase of more B-2s. Dole is scheduled to visit the Northrop B-2 bomber plant in Pico Rivera later this month, something that Clinton has never done.
Moreover, Dole last week wrote a letter to Senate Armed Service Committee Chairman Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) in which he called Clinton's decision to stop production "a serious mistake which will negatively impact our future capability to project power globally."
The conversion of the single B-2 will cost $493 million, which was appropriated by Congress in a contentious battle last year. The conversion is expected to require the test aircraft--which was the first B-2 to fly--be outfitted with stronger landing gear, a radar system and various cockpit electronics systems, a Northrop Grumman spokesman said.
The B-2 bomber program directly supports 11,000 jobs at Northrop Grumman--mainly at its plants in Palmdale and Pico Rivera--and subcontractors in California, and a total of 16,000 jobs nationwide.
Although Clinton's decision is a positive for the B-2, it is less than supporters had hoped for earlier this year. Congress appropriated the $493 million last year as a down payment on future bomber production and hoped that Clinton would climb on the bandwagon by putting orders for more bombers in the fiscal 1997 budget.
After Clinton came out against the B-2 orders in February, key Democratic leaders were left bitterly disappointed, particularly because they never got an expected audience with Clinton before the decision was announced.
In a meeting with Clinton on Feb. 27, senior Democratic leaders argued that his decision was based on a faulty and biased study conducted by the Institute for Defense Analysis, a Virginia think tank funded by the Pentagon.
Those leaders proposed the idea of using the $493 billion for building a 21st bomber during the meeting with Clinton, said Rep. Jane Harman (D-Rolling Hills), another big B-2 supporter who attended the Oval Office conference.
They pleaded their case with the president after failing to persuade White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta to approve the plan during a meeting earlier in the month, she said.
At the White House, Clinton reiterated a concern by the Joint Chiefs of Staff that additional spending on B-2s would rob the Pentagon of the cash needed for other major weapons programs, Harman said.
But she commended Clinton for eventually accepting the plan, saying, "It's the right decision for the short term, and a precursor of an even better decision in the future."
Clinton has agreed to conduct a new study this summer but has not yet chosen a new think tank to conduct the study. The choice of think tanks will strongly influence the ultimate recommendations, and B-2 supporters are watching the issue closely.
In his letter, Dole asked Thurmond to watch the choice of think tanks closely and ensure that the committee authorize funding that will keep open the option of building more B-2s.