Stealth performance matters, because the bomber is neither particularly fast nor maneuverable. Once tracked, it is probably quite easy to destroy by surface-launched missile or by interceptor. In the past, those arguing against reliance on stealth have generally claimed that it is too easy for a prospective enemy to take anti-stealth measures such as buying low-frequency radars or achieving greater coordination (as in the U.S. Navy's Cooperative Engagement Capability). There also have been hints that bombers invisible to radar cannot solve inherent infrared problems, such as airframe heating caused by skin friction. All of the supposed counters to stealth require substantial investment on the part of anyone expecting stealthy aircraft to attack. Third World countries have been notoriously reluctant to pay for improved command and control, which includes improved air defense sensors, and all of these factors have given stealth crews considerable reason for relief.
Now, however, the question of whether stealth really works is being raised. Airplanes flying at White Sands encounter little or no rain. They may encounter sand, but they are washed (and probably repaired) after each flight. Their hangars offer environmental protection on a scale unimaginable in a combat zone. A critic might add that, given the structure of these programs, few of those interested in countering stealthy aircraft can be given full rein. The program is designed mainly to protect itself and to justify the investment, reportedly $4.5 billion, in the bombers.
It is possible that the bomber's problems have been overstated. Selling the project must not have been easy, so the airplane's radar cross-section was probably rather optimistically estimated; readers will remember phrases such as: "smaller than an insect's ... Those doing the selling probably did not care about the later effects of excessive specifications. Possibly, then, even a wet B-2 is good enough, just not as spectacular as its press clippings. The low availability rate may mean no more than excessive attention to details like flaking paint. Three radar failures an hour may mean that the cross-section temporarily increases noticeably, but not usefully enough for a defender.
More likely, however, there is a good reason why the program stopped at 21 aircraft.
Fighters, Frigates Vie for Funds
France wants to cut procurement by 10% to 12%. The government wants to reopen the multiyear deals its predecessor approved before leaving office, including an order for 48 Rafale fighters. That may not be the best place to cut. Rafale offers real export possibilities—if it actually enters French service reasonably soon. Rafale may be particularly well-placed if the Germans decide to bail out of their own multinational fighter project, Eurofighter 2000. The Germans already have delayed production several times, despite British pressure to approve it (Britain is the largest of the partners, the others being Italy and Spain). The French may well reason that, without a pressing threat, Italy and Spain will opt out of the program. It does not offer their own industries enough work to make it a major social issue (Britain is a different case). If Germany also opted out, the British might find the fighter altogether unaffordable. British politicians arguing that it was a valuable declaration of loyalty to Europe might find it easy to switch to Rafale, which is a roughly equivalent airplane. It may be be well worthwhile to keep Rafale healthy, even to accelerate it.
The multinational Horizon frigate might turn out to be a better candidate for cuts. Britain presently plans to buy 12 ships, to replace Type 42 antiaircraft destroyers. France wants four (but currently plans two). Italy wants up to six, but is widely expected not to buy them. It has a national frigate program that might easily be expanded to cover the planned Horizon purchase. From a French perspective, the most important aspect of Horizon is its Aster missile system, which is linked to a new set of radars. This system is applicable to many other types of ships, and is being offered for export as part of improved La Fayette -class frigates. A French government in deep financial trouble might find it easiest to buy more La Fayette hulls with provision for later upgrade with the missiles, rather than to pay for more elaborately equipped Horizons. The French may come to see the La Fayette much as we now see the Spruance (DD-963)-class destroyers: a useful hull, bought at a low price because it is underequipped, but well suited for the necessary upgrades as money becomes available.
The British election has complicated matters. The new Labour government has ordered a major Defense Review. For the Royal Navy, this is the time to justify orders for new carriers to replace the three existing Invincibles . Sketch designs have been described at a series of professional conferences. If Labour accepts the logic of maritime power projection, then the new carriers deserve the highest priority. In theory, they are not due until 2010, when the Invincibles must retire (after 30 years). However, a solid decision now would help. Given Labour's crushing majority in the House of Commons, the current government need not order a new election until 2002, By that time the carrier decision will have to be quite firm.
All of the British services naturally are arguing that their new equipment is vital. As of late spring, the Royal Air Force seemed nervous; a speaker at a maritime conference warned that interservice rivalry might sink all the services. That can be read as a coded threat to attack a Royal Navy which thought it finally had the upper hand. It may also mean that the RAF is finding it difficult to explain why it needs the Eurofighter, an interceptor to defend Britain against a non-existent Soviet threat. If power projection is the future, the Eurofighter is the past.
Horizon already has been approved for the Royal Navy, but it is running very late. That is partly an inevitable consequence of multinational decision-making—and a consequence of French finances, which already have forced the French to stretch out many programs. If Horizon stretches much farther, it will not be available in time to replace Type 42 destroyers, which apparently are visibly wearing out. There are rumors that the Royal Navy may lease or buy some U.S. ships as gap-fillers.
Beyond Horizon, the Royal Navy must replace the Type 22 antisubmarine warfare frigates, and has a program called the Future Escort. Conditions have changed radically since the Cold War. so the ships may well be something closer to a generalpurpose destroyer. Given the gross delays in Horizon, it may come to be a British-only alternative to the multinational ship.
The Royal Navy has convinced the British Treasury to allocate a very large sum to buy Horizon frigates around 2000. Any great delay in the program would present the navy with serious financial problems, since it would have to justify the costs not only of Horizon but also of a more or less parallel carrier program. British shipbuilding capacity has shrunk dramatically in recent decades, and it might even be difficult to build carriers and large frigates at the same time. As in the United States, money allocated for one fiscal year is difficult or impossible to save up for a later one. The Treasury thinks in terms of a total budget. A huge increase in the navy's budget in, say 2005, could be bought only by cutting elsewhere—which would be difficult to explain or accept.
Most of the cost of a Horizon frigate will go for its weapon system, including combat direction. As any naval architect will say (but politicians often fail to realize), ship steel is quite cheap. Given the same equipment and combat system, a 40,000-ton frigate would not cost much more than a 5,000-ton frigate. What few realize is that, in these terms, a small carrier very nearly is a 40,000-ton frigate, except for the cost of her aircraft.
The Royal Navy therefore can make a compelling financial argument that, since Horizon is not yet ready, it might as well spend the allocated money on new carriers. The Treasury will see a considerable savings, since 8 or 12 Horizons probably cost as much as 6 or 10 carriers. Counting in the aircraft, three to five carriers are still less expensive. Conversely, money programmed for the carriers can be used instead for a deferred frigate program.
Since much of the investment in Horizon will go into its combat direction system, the Treasury will be relieved to know that much of the same system can go into a new carrier. After all, existing carriers and destroyers share much of the software and hardware of the earlier action data automated weapon system. The carrier may accommodate the new missile planned for Horizon (the French carrier Charles de Gaulle already does).
Advocates of a new carrier have pointed out that, although the Royal Navy prefers to continue using short takeoff/vertical landing (STOVL) aircraft, such as the Sea Harrier and the projected Marine Corps/Royal Navy version of the coming Joint Strike Fighter, a 40,000-ton hull also can accommodate conventional aircraft—probably using a ski jump and arresting gear. In that case, the Royal Navy might offer to use the carrier version of the French Rafale, compensating the French for the loss of the British Horizon program. The RAF might find Rafale, perhaps built under license, as a reasonable replacement for the more expensive Eurofighter 2000. The Royal Navy might well argue that if the new carrier could accommodate the standard RAF fighter, the latter would become much more deployable (perhaps the RAF should be funding more carriers to replace its fixed stations, then). The French might well believe that Rafale has excellent export prospects, the more so if wider production brought down its unit price. The argument is made plausible by the success of the Rafale's predecessor—Dassault's Mirage.