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Northrop Falling Further Behind on MX, Aspin Says

October 27, 1987|RALPH VARTABEDIAN | Times Staff Writer

Northrop is again falling behind schedule in production of the troubled MX missile guidance system, despite its assurances to Congress earlier this year that it had fixed its management problems and was on a recovery track.

A memorandum issued by House Armed Services Committee Chairman Les Aspin (D-Wis), which was obtained by The Times, indicates that Northrop's deliveries of MX guidance devices will drop by half for the rest of this year.

Moreover, the report indicates that suspect testing of electronic parts in the guidance system has created serious concerns about the reliability of the parts.

"All of this raises questions about how management is working," Aspin said in a telephone interview Monday. "Our concern now is getting the program on track, but it looks like it is going to take longer than we thought."

The Aspin memo, citing information from both Northrop and the Air Force, said deliveries of guidance systems will drop to three per month from six per month for the rest of this year because Northrop is having problems producing critical parts called hybrid circuits.

"This decrease threatens the overall status of the program," the memo said.

Indeed, only 18 of the 28 MX missiles in silos at F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming have guidance systems inside of them because of the late deliveries by Northrop. The late deliveries have caused the Air Force to withhold $108.9 million in contract payments to Northrop.

Aspin branded the MX an "unguided missile."

'Test Station Shopping'

Northrop had promised the Air Force that it would deliver six guidance systems per month, enabling it to be back on schedule by February. Northrop Group Vice President David N. Ferguson testified to Aspin last June: "Mr. Chairman, today we are operating under a realistic delivery recovery schedule that is based on demonstrated production, not on projection."

"They clearly are not going to get back on schedule by February and it raises questions if they are ever going to get back on schedule," Aspin said in the interview. "I was never optimistic that this problem had been solved."

A Northrop spokesman said Monday that the company had not seen the Aspin memo and could not comment on it.

According to the memo, Northrop is now able to turn out only 40% of its planned production of hybrid circuits, which are complex electronic parts that have been a focal point of controversy involving the guidance system.

After four years of development and production, Northrop is still troubled by technical difficulties in producing the parts, which are about the size of a matchbook, committee sources said. Each guidance system, a basketball-sized device that costs $5 million, contains 165 hybrid circuits.

Three Northrop engineers testified that the guidance device, called an inertial measurement unit or IMU, has a number of technical flaws. The current Aspin memo also raises anew some of these concerns.

The General Accounting Office, which has been investigating the MX problems at Northrop at Aspin's request, has learned that Northrop is engaging in "test station shopping." The practice involves taking a failed hybrid circuit and retesting it on a different test machine to see if it will pass.

The memo states that the test machines are not standardized and apparently are not uniform in their testing procedures, an allegation that was made before the committee earlier this year by former Northrop engineer Dave Peterson.

"Although the Air Force believes that the fielded hybrid circuits are good, the test shopping practices have led to general uncertainty about the reliability of the hybrids and contributed to the production backlog," the memo said. "As a result, it is anticipated that a recommendation will be made that the Air Force go back to square one and determine precisely what capabilities are required for valid hybrid testing."

Another issue raised by the three-page Aspin memo is the Air Force's decision to cancel a major audit, called a Contractor Operations Review, of the Northrop operation.

The audit was originally scheduled for this summer but delayed until this month. It has now been postponed until February.

"Simply stated, the contractor can not pass the audit," the memo said. " . . . it does raise questions about the ability of management to come to grips with the problems."

According to committee sources, it appears that the Air Force planned to hold the audit only if Northrop could pass it.

"The integrity of the audit process is in question when you decide to postpone it," one committee source said.

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