- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 24, 2001

There are five B-1 bomber bases. They were designed to scatter our bomber force to survive a Soviet first strike. The Soviet Union disappeared a decade ago. The post-Cold War reality led the Bush administration to announce last week that the B-1 bomber force needed reducing, rationalizing and reorganizing. The pro-defense, conservative administration said that it was going to shrink the B-1 fleet from 93 to 60 aircraft and reduce the number of bases from five to two, saving $1.5 billion over the next five years. That money would be used to convert the remaining B-1s into a far more capable and reliable force.

You might have expected military reformers in Congress to be giddy, fiscal conservatives to be jubilant and pro-defense hawks rushing to be supportive. Here was a first step toward cutting waste, improving management and getting a more effective defense for the dollar. Here was real change in the right direction.

Not unpredictably, the reaction from Congress was instinctively protective. "Defending the country" was subordinated to "defending my district." While it is true that the administration's consultation with Congress could have been handled better so as not to unnecessarily surprise members, the principles of the consultation should be stark and unyielding.

President Bush is committed to transforming the Pentagon preparing it to enter into a new generation of capabilities based on Information Age technologies. Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld has been looking at the potential in nano-scale science and technology, robotics, unmanned air, sea and ground vehicles, space- based assets and high-speed computation. They both know that the current Pentagon, the current Defense Department structure, and the current congressionally micromanaged system of waste, pork and red tape are incapable of producing those modern 21st century systems.

Congress will presently discover that the entire senior Bush team is deeply committed to transformation of the defense and intelligence system. Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Colin Powell were both in charge during Desert Storm. They know personally that our young men and women in uniform will be increasingly at risk by an untransformed, inefficient, congressionally micromanaged Pentagon. Mr. Rumsfeld led the Pentagon in one of the most difficult periods of the Cold War and is profoundly concerned that American lives will needlessly be lost if we cannot modernize and invest in 21st century technology for our troops.

The president takes seriously his responsibilities as commander in chief. He understands that if we ask our young men and women in the military to risk their lives for our country then we have the moral obligation to provide them with the best equipment, the best training and the best leadership possible. The determination of the Bush team is unlike anything Congress has faced in recent years.

Within this framework of insisting on the best deal for our young men and women in uniform let's revisit the B-1 decision. The B-1 fleet is short of spare parts and maintenance crews. It has been plagued by crashes, leaky fuel tanks and electronic glitches. The current B-1 fleet is so underfunded and so poorly managed that 46 percent of its planned missions last year never got off the ground.

Furthermore, the B-1 was designed for a technologically simpler world. Unlike modern stealthy aircraft like the F-117, the B-2 and the F-22, the B-1 simply cannot operate over enemy territory if there is a robust ground-to-air missile defense. When it can be used it is currently restricted to missions that can be better performed by B-52s and B-2s.

The Air Force plan is to modernize the 60 remaining B-1s so they can be flown into dangerous areas with greater safety and can perform more demanding missions. We will save lives by significantly lowering the risk to our aircrews and enabling them to increase the support they can give our young Americans in ground combat. The Air Force has ingeniously created a model that turns waste into weapons by eliminating duplication and putting the money saved into supporting war-fighters.

The B-1 decision is important because it is only the beginning of the waves of transformation essential to modernizing the Defense Department. Mr. Rumsfeld has already testified that we could save several billion dollars a year for modernization with another round of base closings.

Every savings that can be applied to transforming the Pentagon is a step toward saving the lives of young Americans. It is time for Congress to look at the big picture and support the B-1 effort as a critical first step to providing our young men and women in uniform with the best defense systems possible.

Newt Gingrich is the former speaker of the House.

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