WASHINGTON (AP) _ In a break with its Cold War past, the Pentagon is proposing a one-third reduction in the Air Force's fleet of B-1B Lancers, the sleek bomber originally built to penetrate Soviet air defenses in the event of nuclear war.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld included the cost-saving step in the administration's amended 2002 defense budget, which is to be submitted to Congress on Wednesday.
Two senior defense officials discussed the B-1B decision Tuesday on condition of anonymity after word leaked to members of Congress whose states and districts would be affected by the cuts.
The defense officials portrayed Rumsfeld's decision as an effort to seek greater efficiencies in a military that is still struggling to make the transition from Cold War roles and missions.
Critics in Congress accused the administration of playing politics, noting that the only two B-1B bases left would be in President Bush's home state of Texas and South Dakota, the home state of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle.
The Air Force says the B-1Bs cost more than $200 million apiece. There originally were 104; 93 remain. The last one was built in 1988.
Rumsfeld is asking Congress for authority to retire 33 of the 93 B-1Bs and consolidate the fleet at just two bases _ Dyess Air Force Base in Texas and Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota.
The change would end the B-1B mission for the 116th Bomb Wing at Robins Air Force Base near Macon, Ga., and the Kansas Air National Guard's 184th Bomb Wing at McConnell Air Force Base in Wichita.
The consolidation would also affect a smaller number of bombers assigned to Mountain Home Air Force Base in Idaho.
The administration's amended 2002 budget request calls for defense spending of $329 billion, which is $18.4 billion more than Bush had requested earlier this year. Savings from reducing the B-1B fleet would be part of $1 billion in total savings in the 2002 budget amendment, officials said.
An Air Force spokeswoman, Col. Susan Strednansky, said Wednesday that reducing the fleet to 60 planes would cut operating costs and result in a more combat-ready fleet. She had no cost-saving estimate.
The B-1B decision would appear to indicate that Rumsfeld intends to keep the Air Force's fleet of B-52 bombers. The irony of that is that the B-1B originally was proposed as a replacement for the B-52, which has been flying since the Vietnam War and is expected to last another 30 years.
Members of Congress from affected states were not happy.
``This is wrong. It stinks,'' said Sen. Zell Miller, D-Ga. He said it could mean the elimination of 800 to 900 jobs in Georgia. The Air Force has not yet completed a $90 million complex at Robins to house the B-1s, which moved there five years ago.
Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, accused the Air Force of playing politics.
``South Dakota is the home of the majority leader of the Senate. Texas is the home of the president. I have a little feeling about this,'' Roberts said.
Sen. Max Cleland, D-Ga., said he learned about the proposal Tuesday in a telephone call from Air Force Secretary John Roche, who was vacationing in France.
``I couldn't believe it on policy grounds, couldn't believe the way it was handled, so secretly,'' he said. ``There was no consultation with the Congress, no prior briefing, no transition plan, no economic plans for the communities. It looked like the Air Force was pressured into this decision by higher-ups.''
The B-1B, nicknamed the ``Lancer,'' originally was built as a long-range nuclear bomber but was converted during the 1990s to a strictly non-nuclear role.
The first version of the B-1 _ called the B-1A _ was canceled in 1977 after four prototype bombers were built. Flight tests of B-1As continued through 1981, when President Reagan took office and ordered production of an improved variant, the B-1B, which is the version flying today.