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    With a pick in one hand and scratching the earth with the other, Venezuelan miners try to find the valuable coltan.The mineral is then smuggled across the border to Colombia.

    Ignacio Gómez G. http://www.iwatchnews.org/authors/ignacio-g-mez-g

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    Screen shot from Chevy Volt parody ad

    Rachael Marcus http://www.iwatchnews.org/authors/rachael-marcus

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    Aetna CEO Mark Bertolini

    Wendell Potter http://www.iwatchnews.org/authors/wendell-potter

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    When Deidre Ramos moved with her infant son to the Parker Street section of New Bedford, Mass., little did she know that her new neighborhood was toxic.Today, a decade later, Ramos is worried about the health of her two sons growing up in a community contaminated by an old burn dump containing polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).“What will be the long-term effects on my children?” asked Ramos.Now new research conducted in New Bedford suggests that these industrial chemicals, which were first linked

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    The valedictorian of a Florida high school faces a deportation order this month, and a prominent congresswoman has assumed a key role in imploring federal authorities to allow the young woman to stay.This same congresswoman, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, has also endorsed Mitt Romney for the GOP presidential nomination.

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    An unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile launches in February during an operational test from a facility on north Vandenberg Air Force Base. 

    Aaron Mehta http://www.iwatchnews.org/authors/aaron-mehta R. Jeffrey Smith http://www.iwatchnews.org/authors/r-jeffrey-smith

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    President Obama criticized “the other side” for failing to provide “a smidgen of an idea” for energy efficiency. But it turns out, there is only a smidgen of truth to the president’s criticism.The president was speaking in New York at a March 1 fundraising event when he brought up his energy policies — which have come under attack by Republicans of late because of rising gasoline prices.

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    Republican presidential candidate, former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney speaks at a campaign rally in Canton, Ohio.

    Corbin Hiar http://www.iwatchnews.org/authors/corbin-hiar

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    When Deidre Ramos moved with her infant son to the Parker Street section of New Bedford, Mass., little did she know that her new neighborhood was toxic.Today, a decade later, Ramos is worried about the health of her two sons growing up in a community contaminated by an old burn dump containing polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).“What will be the long-term effects on my children?” asked Ramos.Now new research conducted in New Bedford suggests that these industrial chemicals, which were first linked

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    Can the “Lie of the Year” still be used to defeat Republicans?Democrats hope so, and a super PAC is using an Iowa congressional race to retest the claim that House Republicans voted to “end Medicare.” But we find the Iowa ads to be little improved from last year, when we labeled this claim as among the worst “Whoppers of 2011.”In fact, Democrats are doubling down this time.

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    As part of the "White House to Main Street" tour, Vice President Joe Biden visits an Ener1 plant in Indiana and talks with then-CEO Charles Gassenheimer in January 2011. The company later filed for bankruptcy.

    Ronnie Greene http://www.iwatchnews.org/authors/ronnie-greene Matthew Mosk http://www.iwatchnews.org/authors/matthew-mosk

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    Education Secretary Arne Duncan

     

     

    Susan Ferriss http://www.iwatchnews.org/authors/susan-ferriss

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    A group of residents and clergy members from Northern Virginia march to General Electric's office in Washington, DC to protest the company's former subprime lender, WMC Mortgage Corp.

    Amy Biegelsen http://www.iwatchnews.org/authors/amy-biegelsen Emma Schwartz http://www.iwatchnews.org/authors/emma-schwartz

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    A journalist visits stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant during a press tour in Okuma town, Fukushima prefecture, northeastern Japan.

    Corbin Hiar http://www.iwatchnews.org/authors/corbin-hiar

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    Supports: Conservatives Principals: Dick Armey, Matt Kibbe, Ryan Hecker, Russ Walker More...

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    Screen grab of the allegedly doctored image of Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's ad, 'Ohio — Tell Sherrod Brown to Stop Hiding.'

    Peter H. Stone http://www.iwatchnews.org/authors/peter-h-stone

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    A Citgo refinery in Corpus Christi, Texas.

    Chris Hamby http://www.iwatchnews.org/authors/chris-hamby

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    In a corner of Appalachia where the tops of coal-rich mountains are lopped off with regularity, the Spruce No. 1 mine would stand out. Now, thanks to a judge’s ruling, the hotly contested strip mine project may move forward.

    The mine, proposed in Logan County, W.Va., by Mingo Logan Coal Co., a subsidiary of St. Louis-based Arch Coal, would tear up nearly 2,300 acres and fill seven miles of streams with rubble. Its footprint, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, would “take up a sizable portion” of downtown Pittsburgh.

    Mine opponents were encouraged when, in January 2011, the EPA vetoed a Clean Water Act permit that had been issued to Mingo Logan four years earlier by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. They hoped it would be the first of many overrides of Corps decisions by the Obama administration.

    A federal judge’s opinion, issued March 23, has thrown everything into doubt.

    Ruling on behalf of Mingo Logan, U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson, an Obama appointee, held that the EPA had overstepped its bounds. If the agency had problems with the mine, Jackson wrote, it should have spoken up before the Corps issued the permit, which allows the company to dump dirt and other debris into still-healthy streams known as Pigeonroost Branch, Oldhouse Branch and their tributaries.

    “We’re pleased the district court has ruled in our favor — confirming that our Spruce No. 1 permit remains valid,” Arch Coal said in a statement.

    The National Mining Association said the judge’s ruling “struck another blow for restoring the rule of law and regulatory certainty by rejecting [the EPA’s] view that it has unbounded authority to retroactively revoke permits issued by another federal agency.

    “The current permitting process is already a complicated and protracted affair. If we are to encourage investments, grow our economy and create jobs, companies need the certitude their success in obtaining permits will not later be robbed by the whims of the EPA.”

    The EPA says that it and the Department of Justice are reviewing the judge’s decision, which can be appealed. “The decision does not affect the EPA's commitment to protect the health of Appalachian communities who depend on clean water,” the agency said in a statement.

    Nonetheless, Brandon Nida, an environmental activist who lives in the tiny burg of Blair, next to the Spruce No. 1 site, is fuming.

    “This town was already pretty much destroyed [by mountaintop removal mining] in the late ‘90s and early 2000s,” Nida said in a telephone interview. “It went from about 700 people to 60 or 70 now. This will just finish it.”

    Blair is of particular significance because of its proximity to Blair Mountain, where in 1921 some 15,000 striking coal miners fought a violent battle with police and coal company-backed strikebreakers. Dozens died, and federal troops had to be called in.

    The battlefield is “severely threatened by encroaching surface mining operations, and the fate of this remarkable place is uncertain,” says the preservation group Friends of Blair Mountain.

    The EPA says much is at stake.

    The dumping of mine waste into Pigeonroost Branch and Oldhouse Branch “will have an unacceptable adverse effect on municipal water supplies, shellfish beds and fishery areas [and] wildlife,” the agency said in its January 2011 “final determination” report. “EPA has concluded that the full construction of the Spruce No. 1 Surface Mine will transform these headwater streams from high quality habitat into sources of pollutants … that will travel downstream and adversely impact” wildlife.

    Jim Hecker, a lawyer with Public Justice, a Washington-based public-interest law firm that’s been fighting Spruce No. 1 since 1998, said it’s essential that the government appeal the court decision.

    The Clean Water Act says the EPA can veto a Corps permit “whenever it determines a project is environmentally unacceptable,” Hecker said. “To me, ‘whenever’ is the broadest possible language Congress could have used.”

    Hecker fears Jackson’s ruling will “embolden the coal companies. That’s been their strategy — to attack EPA’s authority. This is a mine that would fill over seven miles of streams. It’s massive. If they can mine at that magnitude without scrutiny from EPA, it’s very troubling.”

    A mountaintop removal mining site at Kayford Mountain, W.Va. with Coal River Mountain, left, in the background. Jim Morris http://www.iwatchnews.org/authors/jim-morris

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    The Federal Trade Commission today took up a case that had thwarted state authorities for years, accusing an Internet payday lender with ties to Indian tribes of illegally deceiving borrowers.

    The agency is asking a federal judge in Nevada to order AMG Services of Overland Park., Kan., to stop the deceptive practices and pay back borrowers who its says got cheated.

    “The defendants have deceived consumers about the cost of their loans and charged more than they said they would, said Malini Mithal, the FTC’s assistant director of financial practices. “The FTC is trying to stop this deception and get refunds for consumers.”

    While the company has won arguments in state courts that it has tribal sovereign immunity, allowing it to make loans even in states that restrict or forbid payday loans, that protection doesn’t apply to the federal courts. Court records suggest the business has made more than $165 million, charging interest rates as high as 800 percent on small loans. Borrowers have complained in droves about the lender’s tactics. Law enforcement authorities have received more than 7,500 complaints about the business, the FTC says.

    Among the defendants in the lawsuit is Scott Tucker, a professional race-car driver from Kansas City, Kan. Tucker became a millionaire from the payday-lending business he started more than a decade ago. When state investigators started digging into the company’s practices, Tucker came up with a plan to sell the business to three Indian tribes while continuing to run the company and to collect most of its profits, according to recent court records filed in Colorado.

    The Center for Public Integrity and CBS News jointly investigated and exposed Tucker’s involvement in the tribal payday lending business in September.

    Critics have dubbed this tactic “rent-a-tribe” and other lenders have copied the practice. Several states have tried to take action against the company without success. The business has even won major court challenges in the California Court of Appeals and the Colorado Supreme Court.

    Colorado Attorney General John Suthers has been trying to stop Tucker and the tribes from lending in his state for seven years and uncovered evidence that the deal Tucker cut with the tribes allowed him to keep 99 percent of the revenue. But a Denver judge recently ruled that, despite this evidence, the state was unable to prove that the deal was a sham. As a result, the business continues to make unlicensed loans even in states where payday lending is restricted or illegal.

    “Despite the hard work of state attorneys general, these defendants have been successful in evading prosecution so far,” Mithal said. “But the law that applies to the federal government is different than the law that applies to the states, so the FTC action should put an end to the defendants’ deceptive and unfair practice.

    The FTC released exhibits of bank records that show that Tucker and his brother control the bank accounts of the lending business. From September 2008 to March 2011, AMG Services had deposits and withdrawals of more than $165 million. Money from the business was used to pay for Tucker’s $8 million vacation home in Aspen, Colo., flights on a private jet to races, and even plastic surgery, according to court documents. The FTC says Tucker’s racing team has received $40 million in sponsorship fees from the payday-lending business.

    Besides Tucker, the FTC is also suing business leaders from the Miami and Modoc tribes of Oklahoma and the Santee Sioux tribe of Nebraska who claim to own and manage the business as well as the tribal companies involved. Among the other companies named in the lawsuit is Tucker’s racing team, Level 5 Motorsports, and even a limited partnership Tucker used to buy his home in Aspen.

    Neither Tucker nor attorneys from the tribes responded to a request for comment.

    The FTC accuses the company of deceiving borrowers about how much they’d have to pay back. On a typical $300 loan, borrowers were told they’d have to pay only $90 in interest. But the FTC alleges that the lender would automatically “renew” the loan every two weeks, so that the borrower would in reality have to pay $975 on the loan.

    The FTC alleges the company also deceived borrowers who were late on payments by falsely threatening to sue them or even to have them arrested. And the lawsuit alleges that borrowers were required to sign over electronic access to their checking accounts, which under federal law cannot be a condition of a loan.

    “This provision allows defendants to prey on vulnerable consumers by making automatic withdrawals from their bank accounts,” the lawsuit alleges.

    The loans are often made through a separate lead generator called MoneyMutual.com, which uses former talk-show host Montel Williams to promote its loans, sources told The Center for Public Integrity. Neither MoneyMutual.com nor Williams were named in the lawsuit.

    The loans are made under several brand names, including OneClickCash, UnitedCashLoans, USFastCash, Ameriloan and 500FastCash.

    This is not the first case the FTC has brought against tribal payday lenders. The consumer-protection agency has also filed lawsuits against Payday Financial LLC of South Dakota for trying to garnish wages of its borrowers and threatening to sue them in the Cheyenne River Sioux tribal court. The FTC says the company has no authority to garnish wages or to file cases against nontribal members in a tribal court.

    Online payday lenders are the fasting growing segment of the industry, accounting for more than $10 billion a year in loans. Only a fraction of that money goes to tribal affiliated lenders.

    Angela Vanderhoof of Olympia, Wash., borrowed $400 from OneClickCash in October 2010, not realizing she would eventually pay $690 in interest on her loan or that she would be hit with as many as four overdraft charges on her checking account in a single day. The withdrawals left her nearly penniless, she said.

    When she talked to the Center for Public Integrity last fall, she wondered if she would ever be able to get any of that money back. Today, she’s one of the borrowers listed in the FTC court documents.

    “I think it’s great that somebody doing something,” she said. “I didn’t know if anybody would be able to do anything.”

    Payday lender turned racecar rookie, Scott Tucker David Heath http://www.iwatchnews.org/authors/david-heath

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    When the Obama administration dispatched three B-2 bombers from a Missouri air base on March 19 last year to cross the ocean and reach Libya, it put roughly $9 billion worth of America’s most prized military assets into the air. The bat-shaped black bombers, finely machined to elude radar and equipped with bombs weighing a ton apiece, easily demolished dozens of concrete aircraft shelters near Libya’s northern coast.

    The Air Force points to that successful mission, and thousands of others against insurgents in Afghanistan conducted by older B-1 bombers, while arguing that long-distance, pinpoint expressions of U.S. military power are best carried out by strategic bombers. As a result, th­­e Air Force says, the country needs more and newer versions of them, at the cost of tens of billions of dollars.

    Its claims over the last year have impressed Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, who called the idea “critical” to national security in February budget testimony. They also charmed Congress, which in December slipped an extra hundred million dollars into the defense budget to speed the creation of a top-secret new “Long-Range Strike Bomber.” Only that bomber — among the dozens of major new weapons systems now in development — was honored with a specific endorsement in the Pentagon’s new strategic review, released on Jan. 5.

    But the new bomber’s future is not assured. While Libyan and Afghan gunners may be no match, the new planes seem likely to encounter major turbulence at home, as a climate of financial austerity begins to afflict the Pentagon for the first time in a decade and other weapons compete to serve its military role.

    Critics have expressed concerns that the Air Force will not fit the bombers into its budget; that their preliminary design is too technically ambitious; and that a key potential mission — conducting bombing raids over China — is implausible. They also have asked why new planes are needed when old ones are undergoing multi-billion-dollar upgrades.

    By all accounts, the Air Force’s track record of making bombers the country can afford is dismal. The B-1 program was cancelled mid-stream by the Carter administration after its cost doubled, then revived under President Reagan. The B-2 grew so costly in the early 1990s that the Pentagon ended up buying just a fifth of the aircraft originally planned. The B-2s are actually not used much now, partly because few targets justify risking aircraft that cost $3 billion apiece in today’s dollars, and partly because their flights by some estimates cost $135,000 per hour — almost double that of any other military airplane.

    The Air Force says the new bomber is slated to cost roughly $55 billion, or about $550 million a plane — less than a quarter of the price of the B-2. If costs rise, “we don't get a program,” Air Force chief of staff Gen. Norton Schwartz recently told reporters, citing a 2009 warning by then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, an airpower skeptic, as Gates cancelled an earlier attempt to build a new bomber.

    One of the skeptics is Tom Christie, the Pentagon’s chief weapons tester from 2001 until his retirement in 2005. He says that if $550 million per copy is the target, “you're talking $2 billion by the time they build the damn thing …. How many times [have] we been through this with bombers? And look where we end up.”

    “Besides, what do we need it for?” adds Christie, a sardonic scientist who in his three decades working for the military contributed to the design of many of today’s most successful warplanes. A jowly man with snow-white hair, Christie has devoted his retirement to highlighting and criticizing what he sees as wasteful Pentagon practices.

    The new bomber program has been accelerated at a particularly risky moment, when its design — by the accounts of several top officials — remains up for grabs. The Air Force has said, for example, that it may or may not be given a nuclear mission at some point in the future, a feature that would add to its price tag. The Air Force has also said it is to be “optionally manned,” meaning it conceivably could be flown from a ground station, without a pilot in the cockpit. Nothing similar, involving unmanned, armed aircraft that must survive in a hostile environment, has ever been attempted.

    That kind of technological ambition has doomed many weapons program — a reality the Air Force says it recognizes. In 2009, for example, the Obama administration ordered cancellation of an advanced fighter called the F-22 after its costs ballooned and it began to suffer technological and maintenance problems.

    Besides Gates, no critic has been more vocal and posed more of an obstacle to the Air Force's bomber efforts than Marine Corps Gen. James Cartwright, a former fighter pilot who served as the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 2007 until retiring in August 2011. The charismatic Cartwright was instrumental in persuading Gates to kill off the Air Force's earlier effort to develop a new bomber. It wasn't until Cartwright’s influence waned that the Air Force succeeded in advancing its revived bomber scheme through the Pentagon bureaucracy and Congress.

    Cartwright says the nation does need several hundred new “trucks” or inexpensive bomb haulers, without fancy sensors, capable of penetrating advanced air defenses to drop guided bombs. Such weapons can cost around $20,000 apiece, or about a fifth what modern cruise missiles cost.

    But Cartwright says he doubts that the Air Force can develop an effective bomber cheap enough to be bought in adequate numbers. He predicts cost increases will result in the Air Force again buying less than two dozen new bombers — around a quarter of what the service says it needs. Cartwright adds that he is not sure why the Air Force feels a new bomber is needed now and, equally importantly, why the service believes it can afford it. “Those are the right questions,” Cartwright says.

    A record of cost overruns and shifting timetables

    The Air Force's bomber troubles stretch a long way back. The last bomber to be developed and purchased without huge cost overruns was the B-52, which began development in the late 1940s. Twice in subsequent decades the Air Force launched a new bomber program in order to replace the now-classic B-52, only to see costs rise and production terminated early. Seventy years after its design was conceived, the B-52 remains America's most numerous strategic bomber.

    The Air Force now says it wants between 80 and 100 Long-Range Strike Bombers, the number planners say is required to carry out a sustained bombing campaign against a well-armed foe such as China or Iran. It has said repeatedly that the new planes, which it claims will use "off-the-shelf" technologies, will be ready for flying in the mid-2020’s — when America’s list of friends and foes might be different.

    Between now and then, the Air Force intends to hide the plane’s design, missions, operating costs, and basing plans in an enveloping shroud of secrecy, much as it did with the B-2. “There’s a competition. The program is underway. The requirements, the cost parameters have been set by the secretary of defense and we’re executing in that direction,” Air Force Secretary Michael Donley said at a conference in February. “That's about all we're saying.” Northrop, Boeing and Lockheed Martin all said they would compete for the contract, but likewise declined comment about it.

    The program’s current timetable represents a shift. A decade ago, the Air Force believed it could wait until 2037 for a new bomber. But in 2001, a Defense Department strategy review warned that another world power could launch a surprise attack on a U.S. ally that U.S. ground and naval forces could not prevent — an obvious reference to a sudden amphibious assault by China on Taiwan. It called for a robust capability to strike and maneuver “within denied areas.”

    “What is this but a new stealth bomber?” says David Deptula, a retired Air Force lieutenant general and former deputy chief of staff for intelligence who helped plan bomber operations over Afghanistan and the Pacific and now teaches at the Air Force Academy in Colorado and is CEO of a defense and aerospace contractor, Mav6.

    In 2006, under then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, the Pentagon blessed the Air Force’s plan to produce a new bomber by 2018 — and began channeling money into design efforts. The new plane was supposed to include cutting-edge sensors, communications and weapons, potentially including the world's first operational air-to-air laser cannon — all of which added to its pricetag.

    But after Gates replaced Rumsfeld in late 2006 and Cartwright joined the Joint Chiefs of Staff the following year, Gates canceled the new bomber initiative, citing the same out-of-control technological ambitions that caused the B-2 to cost $3 billion per copy. “It makes little sense to pursue a future bomber … in a way that repeats this history,” Gates said.

    “Gates was listening to Cartwright at this point in time,” says Barry Watts, a bookish former Air Force and Northrop Grumman program evaluator now working for the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

    To lower the cost, Gates proposed the Air Force return to the drawing board and look at an unmanned design, echoing Cartwright's own preference. A strictly pilotless bomber could dispense with the cockpit, ejection seats and onboard oxygen systems, thereby reducing cost, Cartwright claims. “Today’s weapons and platform technologies allow an aircraft to stay airborne far longer than a human can maintain peak mental and physical performance.”

    The White House Office of Management and Budget, which vets all federal spending, endorsed Gates’ decision at the time. “Current aircraft will be able to meet the threats expected in the foreseeable future,” OMB said of the bomber fleet in 2009.

    “The OMB statement was actually something of an anomaly,” counters Deptula, a former fighter pilot and air power champion. “OMB has no military competence and should not be attributed any.”

    Last spring, the House Armed Services Committee promised to give the Air Force $100 million more than the $197 million it requested for new bomber work for the 2012 fiscal year. The committee is chaired by Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Cal.), who district includes a secretive Air Force research and testing facility in Palmdale, outside Los Angeles, where the B-1s and B-2s were built and where the new bomber will most likely be assembled, regardless of which company wins the contract.

    Paul Meyer, a Northrop Grumman vice president, says the extra funding was not a surprise when it was officially appropriated last fall. “I’m proud of how both the Air Force and my committee are approaching the [bomber] development,” McKeon said in a May 5 speech at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C.

    McKeon’s staff did not respond to multiple requests for interviews. But his plan attracted bipartisan House support: George Behan, a staffer for Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., the House Armed Services Committee's ranking member and a longstanding supporter of Boeing — a potential bomber contractor — says the unrequested, extra funding “was needed to keep it on schedule.”

    In May last year, Ashton Carter, the deputy secretary of defense, met with executives from Northrop Grumman, Boeing and Lockheed Martin to discuss the bomber and its technologies in Palmdale. “His intent was to understand what was resident in various contractors' capabilities,” a source at the meeting said of Carter. Details of the meeting have not been disclosed, but when Panetta left as head of the CIA to replace Gates and Carter became the deputy defense secretary, both embraced the bomber enthusiastically.

    “Rebalancing our global posture and presence to emphasize the Asia-Pacific and Middle East areas … requires an Air Force that is able to penetrate sophisticated enemy defenses and strike over long distances,” Panetta said in a February press briefing. “So we will be funding the next-generation bomber.”

    At the same time, Panetta required that senior Defense Department officials jointly oversee its development. He also opted to defer efforts to certify it for carrying nuclear weapons — a task that requires special communications and costly hardening against radiation effects and other consequences of nearby nuclear explosions.

    That decision reverses the development course of the B-1 and B-2, which were designed to be nuclear-capable from the outset and then re-engineered to carry largely nonnuclear weaponry. That change cost around $4.5 billion for the B-1 fleet alone, in 2001. The Air Force has declined to say what the cost will be of “certifying” the planes later as nuclear-capable.

    A cockpit without a pilot

    While meant to be at least as stealthy as the B-2, the new bomber is not meant to fly mostly alone into battle, using its own sensors to spot targets and its own electronic defenses to defeat enemy radar. It “won't be a Swiss Army knife” like the B-2, explains Air Force spokesman Lt. Col. Tadd Sholtis, “Instead, it will rely on its integration with other systems” — such as satellites, spy drones and radar-jamming planes.

    But one challenging requirement has already crept into the design: It is supposed to be flown as a pilotless drone with only minor tweaks. “It could be manned; it could be unmanned,” Meyer says. On some missions, in short, it might look like a ghost-plane, flying perfectly with no crewmembers in the installed seats.

    The Air Force is no stranger to drones — even large ones. The Northrop Grumman-built Global Hawk, with a wingspan greater than the ubiquitous Boeing 737 passenger jet, can stay aloft for 35 hours. Even the Air Force's standard Predator and Reaper, each around the size of a Cessna, routinely fly for 14 hours or more over Afghanistan.

    But the Global Hawk is unarmed, and the propeller-driven Predators and Reapers are loud, slow and intended only for patrols in undefended airspace. The Air Force has never fielded a large, high-performance, armed drone warplane — much less one that can switch between manned and unmanned modes with minimal changes.

    From the mid-1990s until 2006, the Pentagon started to develop such a drone under a contract with Boeing and Northrop Grumman. Flying prototypes, known as the X-47 and X-45, were built under the $1-billion effort, called the Joint Unmanned Combat Air Systems initiative. But the program has not produced a combat-ready copy.

    Cartwright and Gates said they favored a purely drone bomber — a sort of pilotless B-52 priced to buy in large numbers. But the Air Force, with a senior leadership dominated by traditional pilots, pushed back; it insisted that a drone would not save money.

    “By the time you look at a payload of 40,000 pounds, onboard fuel and the airframe itself, adding a crew and cockpit module aren’t that big a deal,” Rebecca Grant, a consultant to major aerospace firms, told Aviation Week, a trade magazine. “We want the value of a manned crew compartment” — principally, a diminished need to ensure good communications back to a control center.” Even highly autonomous drones such as the Global Hawk require a steady satellite link to operators on the ground, which enemies might try to degrade.

    In January, the Pentagon canceled one variant of the Global Hawk, admitting that the spy drone was actually more expensive to operate than the 60-year old, manned U-2 it was meant to replace. “Cost savings have not materialized,” the Defense Department reported. A pilotless bomber could incur the same unexpected expense.

    The Air Force also refuses to accept the notion of a pilotless bomber with a possible nuclear mission. “Could you be comfortable with a nuclear-laden RPA? I wouldn't,” Air Force chief of staff Schwartz said in a recent speech, using the acronym for “Remotely Piloted Aircraft.” As a drone advocate, Cartwright wanted to change that policy. “I don’t remember the last time I manned an ICBM,” he told a group of Washington, D.C., defense reporters last July.

    But with Cartwright out of the picture, the Air Force is not about to shift positions. That means that the new bomber will retain all the risks incumbent in drone design, without the benefit of the potential cost savings that attracted Gates and Cartwright.

    A mission to bomb China?

    In late 2011, Capt. James Perkins, a U.S. Army infantry commander in the eastern province of Paktika, saw bombs dropping from an unseen B-1 through thick cloud cover, striking Taliban fighters with precision. “It was pretty amazing,” he told the Center for Public Integrity. But that type of mission — against an undefended foe — is not what the Air Force has in mind for the new bomber.

    Deptula explains that since 2004, the United States has been stationing B-52s at its air base in Guam, just outside the range of most Chinese weapons. In November of that year, he organized tests to see if the planes could find and sink a Chinese invasion fleet steaming towards Taiwan. Two B-52s flew from Louisiana to the Pacific and hunted for the decommissioned U.S. Navy landing ship Schenectady, which had been deliberately abandoned off the Hawaiian coast.

    Spotting the Schenectady with their sensors, the bombers dropped four tons of explosives on the 522-foot vessel, pulverizing it.

    The continuing presence of B-52s and B-2s on the tarmac in Guam deters China, according to Bob Elder, a retired Air Force lieutenant general who commanded the 8th Air Force, the main bomber unit. “When we want them to be seen — when we're trying to send a signal — they're capable of doing that,” Elder says of bombers.

    This signal is less and less credible, Air Force officials say, because China hasn't been standing still. Their military budget tripled between 2000 and 2010, and the military acquired new jet fighters, radars and long-range HQ-10 surface-to-air missiles, representing what Schwartz calls “one of the world’s best air defense environments.” And the Obama administration — which announced a “strategic pivot” towards Asia in recent months — has expressed concern that a failure to provide a U.S. military riposte might loosen America’s political ties to its closest allies in the region.

    Lately Iran, too, has been investing in air defenses that could challenge U.S. forces, Schwartz added. Technologies meant to keep out U.S. military planes “are proliferating very rapidly,” Jamie Morin, an Air Force assistant secretary and comptroller, told the nonprofit Stimson Center in Washington, D.C., this month. “The technology is widely available and comparatively inexpensive.”

    Against the best defenses, the Air Force can use only the radar-evading B-2s, and only half of these are ready for combat on short notice, analysts say. The non-stealthy B-1s and B-52s are too vulnerable, and fighters including the F-22 lack the range to hit Chinese targets from secure U.S. bases.

    But some experts have said that using any American plane to conduct bombing raids over China is a remote possibility, given that Beijing has a stockpile of missiles tipped with nuclear warheads that can reach major cities in the United States. The idea is both unnecessary and dangerous, said Wayne Hughes, a retired Navy captain now teaching at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif.

    “We should not adopt an air-sea strike plan against the [Chinese] mainland, because that is a sure way to start World War IV,” Hughes told an informal gathering of naval strategists in Washington in February 2011. “We need only enough access to threaten a war at sea that destroys Chinese trade and curtails energy imports.” That more limited deterrent capability does not necessarily require a new stealth bomber, he said, because inexpensive ships and planes firing guided missiles could pose enough threat to Chinese trade to prevent any conflict.

    If Hughes is correct, bomber upgrades already in the works could render the new bomber redundant. The B-52, B-1 and B-2 are all being fitted with a new cruise missile with some of the same stealth qualities as the B-2, and can hit targets up to 600 miles away. For the cost of the new bomber fleet, the Air Force could buy 50,000 of these missiles. It has fired just 2,000 cruise missiles since it began using the long-range weapons in combat in 1991.

    All three existing bombers are also getting new sensors, new radios and structural enhancements. The Air Force has acknowledged the B-1 and B-52 will be structurally sound for at least another 29 years — and the B-2 potentially for another 50 or more. The bill for the B-2 upgrades alone is projected to be $2 billion. Even the B-52 has vast potential, Boeing officials say. “Every aspect of the aircraft — structurally, the capability to hold weapons and avionics, the power — has large margins in it,” explains Scot Oathout, Boeing’s B-52 program manager.

    Air Force spokesman Sholtis responds that “continued modernization of existing aircraft at the expense of any larger leap in technology comes with serious risk. To the extent that we may be required to put our existing, upgraded forces up against more fundamentally advanced air-to-air or surface-to-air threats, we’re looking at more airmen potentially dying and more battlefield targets not being hit.”

    But Christie, a veteran observer of the military services’ budgetary stratagems, speculates that other factors are at play besides military need. “You have new [Asia-centered] strategy which, on the surface, would seem indicate some rationale for something like this [bomber],” Christie says. But he says it’s really an effort to “take advantage of things and jump in there while we can.”

    Christie says the service might be acting now to prop up its budget and thus protect itself from financial ruin in the early 2020s, when two other major Air Force programs — a new tanker and the stealthy Joint Strike Fighter — will also begin full-rate production, potentially under a flat or falling overall defense budget.

    By starting a major program now — any major program — the service can keep its spending high enough to fend off Pentagon planners seeking funds for the Army, Navy and Marine Corps “You strike while the iron is hot and look at where you are five to 10 years from now,” Christie says. Officials think that “hopefully nirvana will come and we’ll have double the budgets we had. We’ll have a new war which will cause budgets to increase or we’ll have allies on [Capitol] Hill to cause them to take money away from the other services.”

    A B-2 bomber, which has a pricetag of $3 billion apiece, flies over the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii. David Axe http://www.iwatchnews.org/authors/david-axe

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