Our coronavirus coverage is free for the first 24 hours. Find the latest information at Please consider subscribing or donating.

  1. Archive

Security clearance: What a great bargain on that B-2 bomber

There must be a sale on B-2 bombers. The newspapers here are crammed with full-page ads for them. Beautiful, sleek, black. Precision-strike aircraft. Only two crewmen and one plane replace 76 crewmen and 38 ordinary planes (or some such number). And only $1.5-billion, $1.1-billion, or a special deal in lots of 20 around $570-million, "contractor fly-away cost," meaning the incremental price to build one more plane. Such a deal.

The U.S. Air Force says it doesn't want any more B-2s. Perhaps Northrop-Grumman, the builder, has other customers in mind. According to a Northrop-Grumman spokesman, the Air Force might want another B-2 wing if only the money came from somewhere else; not from the Air Force budget. Maybe from Medicare or education. The B-2 is a slick two-seater, the Mercedes grand-touring car of the air. But I can't get a place on the waiting list, even though the production line clearly is underutilized. When I called up to get my place in the queue, Northrop's reaction was a bemused rejection of my purchase order.

The Washington Post has other ads for superticket defense items as well. The Electric Boat division of General Dynamics would like to sell an unbuilt Seawolf submarine using full- and quarter-page ads, asking for just a few more billions to keep from wasting the sunk costs. EB also is plugging its New Attack Submarine, but the Newport News Shipyard division of TENNECO claims foul in quarter-page ads. "Wanted," it declares, "a new nuclear submarine. Only one shipyard need apply." Not Newport News.

The Navy wants a new submarine, not the third and obsolete Seawolf-class ship now being built. But those subs will be built by EB in Groton, Conn., which needs jobs. TENNECO will have to be happy building nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and cruisers. EB says that's the Navy's plan, and we should all stick with it and save money.

And if the need is for a sky station-wagon like the C-17 cargo plane, McDonnell-Douglas wants all of us to know that the next world crisis won't care where our troops are beforehand nor how long is the runway at the fighting front. It takes a full page of the Post to sell this AirVolvo for the upscale defense establishment. If speed and agility are the things, combined with a modest bomb load _ by B-2 standards _ their F/A-18 Hornet "impacts world events" with a "decisive first response." Quarter-page.

This is Defense Budget Time, and the Washington newspapers' pages look just a bit different from those of most cities. Nonetheless, there are no requests in the campaign for the awed taxpayer to write to Congress to urge the purchase of bombers, subs, fighters or transport planes. One contractor spokesman suggested that his company's approach was more elegant than that, but, yes, they did have an "outreach" program for constituents, employees and even retirees.

According to Northrop-Grumman's spokesman on B-2 matters, the target audience for the campaign is precisely and only the members and staffs of the House and Senate authorizing and appropriating committees and subcommittees, about than 150 people out of the million or so who read the Post. Northrop lobbyists press their information directly on committee members; the Post ads are just to add a touch of class and to remind the targets over their morning coffee.

Most of these corporate solicitations urge the spending of very large amounts of scarce tax dollars on relatively small numbers of extremely expensive pieces of equipment. Frequently, the companies explain that the nation's security needs can only be met by acquiring their ships and aircraft, so they are bargains at any price. However, the armed forces have explicitly rejected and canceled some of the most heavily promoted programs.

The Air Force has bought one wing of 20 B-2 bombers already; it believes that is sufficient in the post-Cold War era and that it needs other systems more urgently. As Rep. John Kasich, R-Ohio, chairman of the House Budget Committee, said when he argued against the B-2, if he could find "just one (senior) person in uniform" who wanted the airplane, he might withdraw his opposition to the movement to buy a second batch of 20.

We ought, I suppose, to be consoled by the fact that none of this advertising campaign directly costs the taxpayer a dime. Again, according to Northrop-Grumman, corporate advertising strictly is a non-recoverable cost, which cannot be charged to any government contract, and must be paid for out of company profits or stockholders' capital.

However, the House just voted to begin production of 20 unwanted B-2s, at $570-million each. Indirectly Northrop-Grumman's ad campaign costs us more than $11-billion. The aerospace giant should be pleased with its campaign's cost-effectiveness, with a return on expenditure of millions to one.

Peter D. Zimmerman is a nuclear physicist and consultant on national security and arms-control issues.