U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld will ask the U.S. Congress for authority to cut the Air Force B-1 bomber fleet by one-third, senior defense officials said today.
The decision is part of the Bush administration's amended fiscal 2002 budget request, which officials said includes a number of cost savings. Cutting about 30 B-1 bombers from the force would produce significant cost savings, the officials said, although exact figures were not immediately available.
The administration plans to submit the amended 2002 budget request to Congress on Wednesday. It calls for defense spending of $329 billion, which is $18.4 billion more than the president had requested earlier this year.
The B-1 bomber decision comes as Rumsfeld seeks to find cost savings while investing more in next-generation weapons. Some have speculated that Rumsfeld will propose building more B-2 stealth bombers, although officials said today that no decisions have been made.
Two senior defense officials discussed Rumsfeld's decision today after word leaked out to members of Congress. The officials spoke on condition they not be identified.
If Rumsfeld's plan is approved by Congress, the Air Force would have B-1 bombers based at only two bases — Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota and Dyess Air Force Base in Texas. He would move B-1s now assigned to the 116th Bomb Wing at Robins Air Force Base in central Georgia and those assigned to the Kansas Air National Guard's 184th Bomb Wing at McConnell Air Force Base in Wichita.
The consolidation would also affect a smaller number of bombers assigned to Mountain Home Air Force Base in Idaho.
The proposal was promptly criticized by lawmakers from Georgia and Kansas.
"This is absolutely unbelievable," said Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia. "This is wrong. It stinks." He said it could mean the elimination of 800 to 900 jobs in Georgia.
Miller said he had discussed the change with the White House and had sent a letter to Rumsfeld. "I've told them how unacceptable this is," Miller said.
The B-1, nicknamed the "Lancer," originally was built as a long-range bomber but was converted during the 1990s to a strictly non-nuclear role. It was used, along with the B-2s and B-52s, in the air campaign against Yugoslavia in 1999.
Rumsfeld's decision is in line with the recommendation of a study done for him by a Rand Corp. research team led by David Gomperts. The study listed several major weapons as not sufficiently compatible with transforming the U.S. military for 21st century missions, and the B-1 bomber was on that list.
The first version of the B-1 — called the B-1A — was canceled in 1977 after four prototype bombers were built. Flight tests of the B-1As continued through 1981, when President Ronald Reagan took office and ordered production of an improved variant, the B-1B, which is the version flying today.
The first production model of the B-1B flew in October 1984. The Air Force bought 100 of the planes, and now there are a little over 90 remaining. The planes saw their first combat action in 1998 against Iraq.