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Test Lag Fuels Advanced Missile Debate

March 13, 1986|JAMES GERSTENZANG | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — More than two months before he approved renewed development of a controversial missile, Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger was given a memorandum from a senior Pentagon official predicting that adequate test results were unlikely to be available before the go-ahead decision was made, according to a document released Wednesday.

In addition, between the time the memorandum was written and Weinberger decided to proceed with work on the advanced medium-range air-to-air missile (AMRAAM), several tests of the weapon were postponed and an attempted flight test was aborted because of power problems with the missile, the General Accounting Office has reported.

The memorandum, written by John Krings, director of the Pentagon's office of operational test and evaluation, and the GAO report refuel the controversy over the multibillion-dollar missile project. Twelve days ago, Weinberger ended a 13-month study period with the announcement that, after a "thorough review," he could certify to Congress that the missile would meet its performance and cost requirements and that funding for the project is essential.

James Hinchman, deputy general counsel for the GAO, told the House Armed Services subcommittee on procurement and military nuclear systems Tuesday that the agency found no legal basis to object to Weinberger's decision but that "uncertainties as to cost, (production and test) scheduling and performance remain."

'Little Test Data'

An aide said Hinchman added that, although Weinberger certified that the missile would meet the requirements set for it, "there is very little test data to support" this view. The defense secretary's certification was crucial to future production.

When Weinberger delayed a decision in January, 1985, on whether to continue development of the weapon, he raised the possibility that production of the missile, made by Hughes Aircraft Co. of El Segundo, would be canceled. At that time, work on the weapon had fallen at least half a year behind schedule, and the House Armed Services Committee had recommended abandoning it, if costs climbed too high.

The missile is intended to be used by the Air Force and Navy. It would be one of the first fully automated missiles, carrying its own radar transmitter to guide it after a pilot had released it. This would allow a pilot to fire it at a distance as great as 40 miles from a target. Unlike pilots firing less sophisticated missiles, which require continual guidance, the pilot could then turn away to reduce his vulnerability to enemy missiles or to seek another target.

The new missile is being designed for the military's most sophisticated fighter aircraft--the Air Force's F-15 and F-16 and the Navy's F-14 and F-18. The Air Force has spent $531.3 million on development of the missile and is seeking $795.9 million for AMRAAM research and production in fiscal 1987, which begins Oct. 1.

Says Key Test Was Late

In his memorandum, dated Dec. 17, Krings told Weinberger: "There is a low probability of adequate test results being available for an operational capability forecast before March certification."

He wrote that "missile hardware availability" hampered testing progress and that a key test was five to six months late.

A spokesman for the Air Force, which is responsible for the weapon program, said the service had no response to Krings' memorandum. A Hughes spokesman declined to comment.

The one-page document was made public Wednesday by Rep. Denny Smith (R-Ore.), who has raised questions in the past about the adequacy of Pentagon weapons tests and had pressed the Pentagon on the performance of the Sgt. York Division Air Defense (DIVAD) gun, which Weinberger canceled last year.

In a letter to Rep. Les Aspin (D-Wis.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Smith wrote: "My concern is not that an advanced medium-range air-to-air missile cannot be built. It is obviously within the realm of current technology to produce such a weapon. However, I am very wary when a program originally slated for approximately 90 tests by March 1, 1986, falls so far behind schedule that only four tests can be conducted."

On Feb. 28, when he approved further development of the missile, Weinberger said that the total cost for 24,000 missiles planned for the Air Force and Navy would not exceed $7 billion.

Smith added in his letter to Aspin: "How the final cost of a weapon so early in its test phase could be certified down to the dollar is beyond me."

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