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New Problem Surfaces in Hughes Military Job

January 22, 1985|RALPH VARTABEDIAN | Times Staff Writer

In 1980, the Air Force ordered Hughes Aircraft Co. to rush into production a sophisticated communications terminal that was intended to eliminate a key weakness in European air defenses.

But today, the multimillion-dollar program is bogged down in technical problems resulting largely from that decision to bypass the normal practice of developing military hardware in gradual and well-defined steps.

Deliveries of the terminals, known as JTIDS (pronounced Jay-Tids), have been suspended since April, 1984, when the El Segundo-based company notified the Air Force that it had detected electronic failures during tests of production units. The Air Force since has conducted several quality control and production audits, Air Force officials said recently.

The work on JTIDS, which stands for Joint Tactical Information Distribution System, is under way at Hughes Ground Systems Group in Fullerton, a major military equipment supplier with more than $1 billion in annual sales to all three military services.

The Air Force said it is requiring Hughes, under its fixed-price contract on JTIDS, to absorb all the costs of repairing existing terminals and correcting underlying production problems.

The JTIDS terminals cost about $1 million each, not including inflation since 1981. The Air Force and foreign customers plan to buy 116 terminals. Hughes officials declined to say whether they are losing money on the program, but the extraordinarily long nine-month suspension of deliveries is certain to be costing a great deal.

The program is nearly one year behind schedule, according to Lt. Col. Blaise Durante, JTIDS program manager at Hanscom Air Force Base, near Boston.

Air Force officials say they hope that a "comprehensive recovery plan" being instituted by Hughes will permit deliveries to resume this March.

The JTIDS is a data and voice radio terminal that resists jamming, designed for the Air Force's AWACS radar aircraft. The system was rushed into production when it became apparent that the Soviets had the capability to jam electronically transmissions to and from the AWACS aircraft. The problems on JTIDS are yet another thorn in the side of Hughes Aircraft, which through much of 1984 suffered a monumental dispute with the military over the quality of its missiles and radar.

But unlike the well-publicized problems that Hughes experienced with its missile programs, some of the major problems with JTIDS involve Hughes subcontractors, according to Air Force officials.

"Hughes was not levying the kind of quality requirements on subcontractors that we expect," said Durante, the Air Force's program manager.

Durante said that reliability problems turned up in six of the seven electronic boxes that make up the JTIDS terminals, including a box built by Hughes itself. Components in the boxes were failing in the high and low temperatures that typically are encountered when the equipment is in use.

The terminals were developed and produced concurrently, which meant that the normal testing that products undergo before full-scale production was skipped. Under the Air Force contract, Hughes was supposed to test every 12th terminal.

As a result of that testing program, the reliability problems did not turn up until 33 terminals were delivered, Durante said.

Responsible for System

Even though many of the JTIDS problems were not the result of Hughes' own work, Hughes is responsible for the entire system because it is the prime contractor to the Air Force.

Quality control problems at subcontractors are significant because Hughes, like much of the defense electronics industry, is already producing electronics gear at capacity levels and has sought to relieve production pressures by subcontracting work to smaller firms.

A Hughes spokesman said that 70% of the production work on the JTIDS systems has been subcontracted out. The Ground Systems Group expects to continue growing in contract volume, but without adding to its work force of 14,000, Hughes officials have said.

"Hughes Ground Systems Group instituted a total quality program, but one of the things we saw was that we had not extended our program to the subcontractor base," the spokesman said.

Since the JTIDS problems surfaced, Hughes has added resident quality inspectors at its major subcontractors, he added.

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