Air Force Secretary Donald B. Rice disclosed late yesterday that the Northrop B-2 stealth bomber failed recent tests of its ability to operate without being detected by enemy radar -- a potential political bombshell for the controversial $60 billion program.
Mr. Rice said that in a recent flight test, measurements of the B-2's stealth capability "did not meet the desired levels of performance." According to congressional sources, the failure stems from a potentially serious technical problem that is likely to be seized upon by B-2 opponents.
Without the clear ability to operate undetected by enemy radar, the entire justification for the B-2 program would be thrown into doubt, congressional sources said. A major weakness in the stealthiness of the B-2 would "go to the guts of the program," a House staff member said.
But Mr. Rice, in a statement, asserted that even with the recent test failure, the B-2 remained "the most survivable aircraft in the world and will provide unmatched power projection and deterence." He added that the "fundamental soundness" of the B-2's design had been confirmed by the testing.
Mr. Rice is scheduled to meet today with Representative Les Aspin, D-Wis., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, to brief him on the test results. Mr. Aspin is a leading opponent of the B-2 and led the fight in the House of Representatives to try to stop the B-2 program.
Mr. Rice met Tuesday with Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Disclosure of the problems comes at an inopportune political juncture for B-2 supporters. A House-Senate conference committee is starting to resolve differences in the chambers' B-2 budget authorizations for fiscal 1992. The Senate authorized the Air Force to buy four more B-2s, but the House authorized no new aircraft beyond the 15 already on order.
The House staffer said yesterday that the timing of the disclosure was designed to avoid any suggestion that the Air Force had sought to withhold damaging information until after the conference panel had committed money to the B-2.
"This would be another A-12 scandal if they allowed the conferees to go ahead on the B-2 authorization and came in afterward with the bad news," the source said, referring to the troubled Navy attack jet program that was canceled earlier this year.
"That would have left the secretary [Mr. Rice] holding the bag," the staffer said. "If it wasn't extraordinarily serious, they wouldn't be rushing in like this."
An aerospace-industry source said the recent Edwards Air Force Base tests failed by the B-2 occurred against certain types of potential enemy radar threats. He declined to specify what types of radar threats, but he acknowledged that concern has focused on the ability of low-frequency radars to detect the B-2.
The source insisted that the entire problem could be solved at a cost would be "a few hundred million dollars."