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House Committee Claims Air Force Hid MX Failures

August 24, 1987|RALPH VARTABEDIAN | Times Staff Writer

The House Armed Services Committee will issue a stinging rebuke to Northrop and the Air Force today for their troubled performance in producing a key guidance device for the MX missile.

In a 42-page report, the committee charges that top Air Force officials issued a "gag order" to subordinates to keep damaging information about the program's failures, including serious production problems at Northrop, from becoming public.

Rep. Les Aspin (D-Wis.), chairman of the committee, said the MX guidance system deserves a "D" for its performance in test flights because production units have scored a success rate of only 60%.

Moreover, the report, to be released today, indicated that recent test flights have shown a trend toward less accuracy, even though the 17 tests overall have exceeded the Air Force's complicated accuracy requirements by 19%.

Report Disputed

Aspin also disclosed that the Air Force is considering barring the Northrop electronics division from obtaining future Air Force contracts for a period of time. That would not affect existing MX contracts but could block the company from bidding on future orders for guidance systems.

"This is a procurement breakdown," an Armed Services Committee source said, referring to numerous technical and managerial problems on the MX guidance program that were uncovered during a series of four hearings this summer.

Air Force officials, however, sharply disputed much of the report, advance copies of which were distributed to reporters late last week. An Air Force spokesman said the committee misinterpreted the test flight results, and the service stands by its earlier statements that the missile system has been more accurate than had been predicted.

The allegation that top Air Force officials issued a gag order was refuted by Lawrence A. Skantze, a recently retired Air Force general who commanded Air Force research and procurement.

"We live in a fish bowl," Skantze said in a telephone interview. He said the alleged gag order was actually a memorandum that required information to be passed up official channels and was never an effort to withhold anything from Congress.

Nonetheless, the report cites a "proclivity that appears to exist within the Air Force . . . to mask or minimize reports of program difficulties."

Northrop is the prime contractor for building a sophisticated guidance device called the inertial measurement unit, or IMU, a basketball-sized device packed with 126 pounds of electronics and instruments. It is the "brain" that is supposed to guide each MX missile's 10 nuclear warheads to their targets.

Northrop spokesman Tony Cantafio acknowledged that the company still is four months behind schedule in deliveries of IMUs, but he said the number of tardy units has been reduced by 25% since May. The Air Force is withholding $108 million in contract payments to Northrop because of late deliveries, he acknowledged.

"We have made progress," he said. The committee report said Northrop fell short of its own recovery plan in July when it delivered only four IMUs, two fewer than planned. But Cantafio noted that five IMUs have been delivered so far this month.

Concerning a possible debarment of the company, he said: "This is the first I have heard of it."

The late deliveries, however, are only one potential source of future trouble for Northrop. The company is the subject of a federal grand jury investigation in Los Angeles on a number of defense fraud allegations. Aspin also said that an assistant U.S. attorney has been assigned to handle the Northrop case full time.

Timecards Also Probed

One of the most damaging allegations involves Northrop's alleged falsification of tests on a part called a heat exchanger. The company certified that 77 heat exchangers were tested to 150 pounds per square inch pressure, according to the report. The Air Force later discovered that the company did not own the equipment needed to perform the test.

Another investigation is looking into alterations of timecards. According to the report, a check of 4,219 employee timecards showed that 20% had been altered. Up to $14 million in potential overcharges to the government is being questioned.

In addition, Air Force and Justice Department investigators still are trying to determine the validity of an allegation that the company disposed of a large quantity of excess MX parts by throwing them into a garbage bin at the plant, according to Aspin.

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