WASHINGTON -- President Bush, facing pressure to make deeper defense cuts, has decided to terminate the B-2 bomber in a move that could provide long-term savings of as much as $25 billion to taxpayers, according to administration officials.
The decision, expected to be formally announced in Mr. Bush's State of the Union address Jan. 28, is a major concession to congressional opposition that had all but doomed the high-profile program.
The president's decision would not kill the program immediately. The completion of five more B-2 stealth planes would be allowed, bringing the total force of radar-eluding bombers to 20. The additional work means there will be only modest short-term savings, since the Pentagon is expected to request funds in 1993 to bring the program to a close.
But officials expect the decision to help the Bush administration demonstrate its recognition that with the demise of the Cold War, other domestic priorities have taken on greater importance.
"It's a recognition of the different environment we're in and the different requirements we have now," an administration official told the Los Angeles Times.
Ending production after 20 planes would make the aircraft by far the most expensive ever built, driving the cost of each plane -- including the program's development -- to more than $2 billion.
For the Air Force, which originally proposed building 132 B-2s and had made the program one of its highest priorities, the early cancellation marks a bitter defeat. Knowledgeable government sources said the service had proposed to scrap the force of bombers entirely rather than accept the high cost of operating such a small number of the specialized planes.
But Mr. Bush directed officials instead to shift the focus of the program away from the plane's original nuclear mission and orient it more toward conventional attack.
The president's decision on the B-2 is one of a number of key program cuts he is expected to make before the State of the Union address. Sources also said further production of SSN-21 Seawolf attack submarines probably would be scuttled as part of the reductions, which are expected to reach as much as $70 billion over the next five years.
Defense Secretary Dick Cheney met yesterday with Air Force Secretary Donald B. Rice and Air Force Chief of Staff Merrill A. McPeak to notify them of the president's decision on the B-2.
Congress has approved $37 billion for the production of 15 production models of the B-2 and a single version for testing purposes. Congress also has approved the purchase of major components for an additional five B-2s. In Mr. Bush's plan, production of the B-2 would cease after those planes had been completed.
The Air Force had estimated it would cost an additional $28 billion to build 50 more B-2s. With the early shutdown of B-2 production, much of that projected expenditure would be saved.
Mr. Bush's announcement would come two months after Congress denied the Pentagon the use of B-2 funds for the production of any additional bombers. A new congressional vote, set for this spring, was to have determined whether the Air Force would be permitted to proceed with the program, using $1 billion to build a 16th bomber.
But with opponents vowing to deny the funds, the B-2's political prospects have become bleaker than ever. Mr. Bush's action would allow him to salvage some political good will before congressional opponents could terminate the program.
The president's decision also aims to win a final compromise from lawmakers, who would be asked to approve several billion dollars to fill out the smaller B-2 force.
It also follows what congressional proponents of the B-2 have called a steady retreat in Mr. Bush's public support for a $65 billion force of 75 planes.
The B-2 originally was designed as a nuclear bomber that could sneak past elaborate Soviet air defenses and deliver nuclear warheads on highly defended Soviet missile fields. In more recent years, the Air Force has touted the aircraft's ability to conduct conventional bombing missions as well. But with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the resulting dismembering of its vaunted air defense network, the rationale for the bomber program was dealt a serious blow.