Air Force Curtails Testing of B-2 Bomber to Meet Deadline

Concerned about meeting production deadlines, the Air Force is canceling some combat testing for the B-2 bomber force, according to a c...

Concerned about meeting production deadlines, the Air Force is canceling some combat testing for the B-2 bomber force, according to a congressional report released Tuesday.

The report by the General Accounting Office said the Air Force concluded the curtailed testing would "slightly reduce the confidence'' in the resolution of a basic question about the radar-evading plane: "Can the B-2 carry out its assigned mission with a high degree of survivability when employed within its concept of operations?''

Pressing to meet a July 1,, deadline for completing flight testing, the Air Force scaled back the number of flying and testing hours devoted to such things as armament, offensive and defensive avionics, radar for low-level terrain-following flight, and survivability in hostile territory.

In all, the Air Force cut back these and other test hours -- flight hours over the actual testing range -- by 387 hours, or 14 percent. In individual categories, the cuts were larger: 29 percent cut in armament test hours; 22 percent cut in terrain-following radar testing.

"The revised flight test plan focuses remaining testing efforts on demonstrating the minimum essential employment capabilities needed to field a fully combat capable aircraft,'' the GAO wrote.

George R. Schneiter, the Pentagon's director of strategic and tactical systems, wrote in a letter accompanying the report that the Department of Defense "has reviewed the report and concurs without comment.''

The Air Force said the changes were manageable because most of the planned B-2 force of 21 aircraft must go through further modifications between now and 2000 to bring the planes up to their full potential for evading radar and delivering precision-guided conventional weapons. The bomber was conceived in 1981, primarily to drop nuclear bombs on the Soviet Union.

As planned, the B-2 bomber program will cost $45 billion, including research, development, construction and modifications -- more than $2 billion per plane. The bat-winged aircraft is built largely in Southern California by Northrop Grumman Corp.

The GAO praised the Air Force for making substantial improvements in the B-2's radar-evading characteristics and its ability to fly low to the ground, day or night, without crashing into obstacles.

"The Air Force has resolved or is working to resolve these problems,'' the GAO reported. As a result, the bulk of the B-2 fleet will be cleared for flights at 600 feet as opposed to the earlier planned limit of 1,000 feet. A persistent problem remains the low-flight radar system's ability to distinguish rain from other obstacles, such as mountainsides. A new software system to correct this problem was installed earlier this year.

The Air Force is planning further improvements in B-2 conventional weapons systems that could add between $1 billion and $3 billion to the overall cost of the program. The GAO warned that delays in completing tests, and new problems that crop up as Northrop Grumman completes modifications over the next three years, could add to the cost.

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