JUST BEFORE SUNSET, THE NOISE LEVEL NEAR DYESS AIR Force Base in Abilene goes several notches past deafening. Every few minutes, a sleek B-1 bomber roars overhead, practicing touch-and-go landings. It’s a tooth-rattling racket, so loud it makes a normal jetliner seem hushed, but it’s a fact of life in Taylor County. Forty-four of the nation’s 95 B-1s are stationed at Dyess, along with 27 C-130 transport planes. For putting up with the noise, Abilene gets a much-needed economic boost: 10 percent of the city’s jobs depend on the base, which is its largest employer and contributes more than $300 million annually to its economy. “The community and the air base go hand in hand,” says William J. Ehrie, the president of the Abilene Industrial Foundation, an arm of the local chamber of commerce.
But if uncrowded airspace and good weather have made Dyess a Department of Defense mainstay for more than a decade, there are storm clouds on the horizon. Last year the Air Force announced plans to move eight of its B-1s there to a base in Georgia. More threatening, however, is a growing debate over whether we need the B-1 at all. Because it was originally designed to drop nuclear warheads on the Soviets, its mission has been questionable since the end of the cold war—yet the Air Force plans to spend $2.9 billion over the next seven years to retrofit the plane with new weapons and state-of-the-art electronics. And the Pentagon already spends about $1 billion each year to operate the B-1, not counting the cost of pilots, ground crews, and overhead—this at a time when other branches of the military can’t afford the equipment they need and social programs like welfare are being slashed.
These hard realities seem to suggest a simple course of action: retire the entire B-1 fleet. Yet as the flap over last year’s decision to close San Antonio’s Kelly Air Force Base proved, there’s nothing simple about shutting down a military installation—especially in a city one-tenth the size of San Antonio. If the B-1 were decommissioned, the effect on Abilene would be devastating. “We live at the whim of the people who hold the purse,” Ehrie laments.
First proposed during the Eisenhower administration, the B-1 has always had strong ties to Texas. John Tower, the late U.S. senator from Wichita Falls, was a chief booster of the plane from its earliest stages. Hans Mark, who was the Secretary of the Air Force from 1979 to 1981 and more recently served as the chancellor of the University of Texas, has been credited with resurrecting plans for the plane after Jimmy Carter canceled them in 1977. And when Ronald Reagan gave the go-ahead for the B-1 in the early eighties, LTV Corporation of Dallas constructed sections of its fuselage.
At a cost of $280 million apiece to build, the B-1 was the most expensive airplane in history. It’s still one of the most expensive to fly. Documents obtained from the Air Force show that the B-1 costs $10,350 per hour to operate, an amount surpassed only by the new stealth bomber, the B-2, which costs $13,993 per hour. There’s no denying that the B-1 is an impressive piece of weaponry. Nearly identical to the Concorde in weight, wingspan, and payload, it can fly a few hundred feet above the ground on autopilot while traveling at near-supersonic speeds.
Yet the B-1 has never been used in combat. At various times in the eleven years since the plane first arrived at Dyess, its engines have exploded or refused to start, its fuel tanks have leaked, its radar system has failed to work, its avionics have proven incompatible, and its skeleton has developed cracks. In addition the General Accounting Office said the plane could not fly effectively in cold, wet weather because it lacked a wing de-icing system. Although the Air Force insists that all these problems have been addressed, critics complain that the B-1 is no more capable than the forty-year-old B-52, the plane it was supposed to replace. David Evans, a defense expert with Business Executives for National Security, a think tank in Washington, D.C., calls the B-1 “an overweight, underpowered airplane that cannot fly as far with as big a payload as the B-52.”
Even Pentagon officials have echoed this sentiment. In a press briefing on February 7, 1995, Undersecretary of Defense Paul Kaminski said the Air Force was considering “retiring immediately” the entire B-1 force. He then endorsed the B-52, which he said is “still quite capable.” In fact, the B-52 can carry a much wider range of