THE Stealth bomber, recently unveiled to the public, has long been popular in the American mind--witness commercials comparing Japanese cars to the sleek plane. This has created a difficult dilemma for President-elect George Bush. Because of its ability to avoid Soviet radar detection in flight, the Stealth is highly attractive to both the public and the defense establishment. But in view of the $500 million-a-piece price tag, Bush must decide whether we can really afford building these expensive new machines.
Hardly anyone denies the Stealth's appeal. Outwardly the B-2, as it has been designated, looks like something out of a science-fiction movie. Its sleek design and black exterior give it the look of a cool, efficient fighting machine. Developers claim the Stealth can fly at speeds upwards of 600 m.p.h. while remaining undetected by even the most advanced radar systems. Experts say that the Soviets won't be able to distinguish between the Stealth and two birds flying together.
BUT the Stealth's attractiveness may represent its tragic flaw. For the bomber, with all its promise, has seduced the American public, which has become enthralled with this sleek weapon. Consequently, politicians, from George Bush to Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, have been forced to register support for the Stealth. And Bush's campaign accusations that Dukakis wanted to cancel the Stealth, followed by Dukakis's strenuous denial, have made it appear that anyone who opposes the bomber is a defense "softy." What should have been a question for national security and defense experts has become a highly partisan political issue.
That's why it's important to peek behind the Stealth's glitter to see the real issues at stake. While the first Stealth, which the government shrouded in a veil of secrecy until two weeks ago, has yet to fly, the Air Force already wants to build another 131. Such a spending frenzy could greatly imperil Bush's efforts to reduce the federal budget deficit, the goal he recently announced would be his first goal as president.
HAVING pledged not to raise taxes or cut Social Security benefits, Bush must find the money somewhere. Since he can do nothing about the interest payments on the $2.6 trillion federal debt and could never cut enough money from social programs to do the trick, Bush must consider new weapons systems as likely targets. This means he should be asking whether the programs like the Stealth are absolutely necessary to our national security. In this case, the answer is a resounding maybe.
While the Stealth may enable our Air Force to do the exciting things described above, Time magazine claims "the same destructive tasks could be performed more cheaply by cruise missiles, which are also being constructed with radar-eluding Stealth technology." Furthermore, according to Time, the missiles might be even more effective than the Stealth because the Stealth cannot find targets on its own. It must depend on satellite communications, which the Soviets could jam. And other factors such as mid-air refueling and high flying Soviet planes may make the Stealth as radar-visible as any other plane.
Of course, Bush may be right when he claims we need the Stealth. But he must be careful not to accept the bomber just because the Air Force wants him to. He must remember the Air Force has its own interests, not necessarily his or the country's, in mind when it calls for new planes. After all, we wouldn't need a big Air Force if we could use cheap and efficient land-based missiles instead.
Bush also must be wary of giving in to public pressure too easily. While the Stealth may make Americans proud, we don't have to spend money on everything that makes us feel good. The founding fathers recognized this and created a representative government so that elected officials could debate rationally and sometimes act contrary to their constituents' wishes. Let's hope our new president, who has the most and best information to decide on programs like the Stealth, realizes the necessity to act in our best interest, even if such action would destroy a popular public fantasy.