When Congress steps in to block the Air Force from retiring some of its bombers, you know the world has been turned upside down. The Air Force loves its bombers! Don’t you remember Dr. Strangelove and Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper? But now the Air Force believes it is time to retire six swept-wing B-1s and plow the resulting $100 million in savings into improvements for its 60 remaining B-1s. But local lawmakers apparently love the jobs the bombers represent more than the Air Force loves the bombers. It’s a case study of why defense spending clings, barnacle-like, to a ship of state fueled by Cold War fumes.
Rep. Randy Neubebaur, R-Texas, represents Dyess Air Force Base, where four of the six bombers are now based — and won’t be based if they’re mothballed. So he succeeded recently in getting an amendment to the latest defense-spending bill to thwart the Air Force’s plan to send the six B-1s to the aging home for no-longer-needed bombers.
The other two B-1s slated for retirement are based at Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D., which of course means that state’s congressional delegation has taken up arms against the proposal. Air Force Times reports that scrapping the bombers would cost 200 jobs at the Texas base and 160 in South Dakota.
“As we work on getting our fiscal house in order, the Department of Defense should not be immune from cuts because there are certainly waste and inefficiencies in their $649 billion budget,” says Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D. “However, the B-1 bomber is a strategic part of our national defense – and it will remain that way until a next-generation bomber is further along in development.”
What’s poignant about democracy is the ways folks who know little about national defense become experts when something threatens defense-related jobs in their districts. They — or at least their staffs — quickly become well-versed in the lingo of the endangered system (note Noem’s charming “boneyard” reference).
They also master the complicated technical arguments bolstering their case. “With just 162 aircraft, the bombers are a mere 3 percent of the Air Force’s manned aircraft fleet,” Neubebaur says. “After seeing the retirement of over 700 bombers during the last several decades, it is in the best interests of our national security to make the right decisions with this scarce asset.” Of course, you could use the same logic, such as it is, to hang on to your VCRs, carburetors, or bayonets.