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Come fly with me

THE BALTIMORE SUN

I AM NOT one of those taxpayers who is constantly asking if I'm getting the biggest bang for my buck. A perfect example of my "who cares what my military hardware costs" attitude concerns a story I recently read in the New York Times by reporter Tim Weiner.

Mr. Weiner wrote about a new report that revealed the $2.2 billion B-2 bomber, pride ofthe U.S. Air Force, is equipped with radar that cannot distinguish between a rain cloud and a mountain.

Although it has failed many of its tests, 20 of the planes are being built at a cost of $44 billion.

Like every piece of military equipment there are other sides to the story.

I spoke to Victor Altchek, on contract to the Air Force as a biased consultant.

"It doesn't matter if the B-2's equipment works or not -- as long as everyone stays inside the budget."

Victor held up a model that looked like a bat. "Despite what the critics say, let me give you the plus side: This plane can fly faster and higher than any bomber in the world."

"What's the minus?"

"It can't fly low because the electronic equipment doesn't work when the plane hugs the ground."

"Can it be fixed?" I asked Victor.

"We're working on it. There's talk of building another plane that would fly above the B-2 and tell the bomber its exact location. This second plane would be plugged in to a third AWAC aircraft that could direct traffic from 60,000 feet.

"It sounds complicated," I said. "If it doesn't do what it's supposed to do, why doesn't the Pentagon just call a halt to the program?"

"Nobody knows how to do that. The people behind the B-2 argue that, although it really is a lemon, it would cost more to cancel the planes than to build them."

"What is the bomber's manufacturer doing to correct the problems?"

"The company has launched an advertising campaign to warn the American public that it can't live without this plane. The TV ads are so good that people keep calling in wanting to know where they can buy one."

I said, "Politicians who are against welfare prefer to eliminate the system on the grounds that it no longer works. Why don't they want to do the same with the B-2?"

"Because this country can afford to finance a bomber that doesn't work, but a welfare program has to be perfect."

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Art Buchwald is a syndicated columnist.

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