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 munitions than the B-1, including nuclear-tipped cruise missiles, conventional cruise missiles, cluster bombs, seagoing mines, and anti-ship missiles.

A later evaluation of the bomber force, however, persuaded the Air Force to keep the B-1, even as overall spending was being cut: The 1996 defense budget of $254.3 billion is $5.3 billion lower than last year’s, and President Clinton’s proposed budget for 1997 includes another cut of $6.8 billion. The irony hasn’t been lost on other branches of the military. “We’re driving Korean War—era trucks,” grouses an Army official, who says that for $30.5 million—the cost of retrofitting a single B-1—the Pentagon could buy 294 brand-new two-and-a-half-ton vehicles. That same money could provide basic and advanced training for 2,050 new troops.

Of course, that money could also be used for a myriad of nonmilitary programs. “If welfare mothers are going to have their payments cut back, it seems the Air Force could also cut back,” says William Hartung, a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute at New York’s New School for Social Research, adding that it makes no sense to spend $3 billion “on a program that has been remarkably unsuccessful.”

Hans Mark disagrees. Even though the B-52 flew 1,741 sorties during the Gulf War, he believes America cannot rely on it, for it is “too old” and “too slow.” Interviewed in his office at the University of Texas at Austin, Mark acknowledged the cold war is over but asserted that “the danger has not gone away.” Sitting beside a model of the B-1, he maintained, “Large airplanes with great destructive capacity are a way of exerting influence.” Likewise, Ehrie—a former B-1 pilot at Dyess—argues that America needs a weapon that can quickly respond to threats. And, indeed, the B-1 recently set a record by flying around the globe in 36 hours.

But no matter how fast the B-1 is, it can’t compete with the power of congressional pork. Over the objections of Texas politicians and Abilene’s civic leaders, the Air Force is moving eight of the planes to Robins Air Force Base in Georgia, which happens to be the home state of Sam Nunn, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee. Just as it took $100 million in the mid-eighties to upgrade Dyess’ infrastructure to make it capable of handling the B-1, the Air Force will likely have to spend the same amount to upgrade Robins. At a time when all branches of the military are trying to consolidate their bases, the move not only “does not pass the fiscal or operational litmus tests,” in the words of Texas senator Kay Bailey Hutchison—it seems absurd.

To some critics, what is really absurd is that the plane hasn’t been grounded outright. “The B-1 represents the triumph of politics over procurement,” Evans says. But to the people of Abilene, whose economy flies or dies with Dyess, politics is a small price to pay.