WASHINGTON — The Air Force, acknowledging the technical problems that have plagued the nation's newest intercontinental nuclear weapon, Thursday gave an Anaheim division of Rockwell International the nod to build a key component of the MX missile's guidance system.
In awarding the $61-million contract to build inertial measurement units--called IMUs--for the MX missile, the Air Force found a second source of the crucial parts, which have been built exclusively by Los Angeles-based Northrop's Electronics division in Hawthorne.
At the same time, the Air Force rebutted critical comments that were aimed at the program Monday by the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, calling the MX a "model acquisition program."
The Reagan Administration has made the MX missile the centerpiece of its efforts to bolster the nation's arsenal of nuclear weapons and plans to have 50 of the 10-warhead missiles deployed by December. But as of last Monday, failures of the delicate guidance system have kept 11 of 30 missiles so far deployed out of service.
The Defense Department, citing lax management practices and delayed deliveries by Northrop, has withheld a total of $136 million in payments to the company.
Rep. Les Aspin (D-Wis.) charged Monday that the missile program had "run amok" and warned that the MX's technical problems might be "more intractable than thought." The Air Force has acknowledged the technical problems with the IMU but has minimized their significance.
It said the MX, which it calls the Peacekeeper, has met or exceeded the service's cost, schedule and performance demands. Aspin's contention that the missile is "unguided" until technical problems are resolved "is totally untrue and borders on the irresponsible," an Air Force spokesman said.
The Air Force maintained that it will save $38 million on future purchases of IMUs by tapping Rockwell, headquartered in Pittsburgh, as a second manufacturer and said the competition will help improve Northrop's performance.
"If you have a company that is having troubles making deliveries or meeting its contractual responsibilities, it always helps" to bring in a competing manufacturer, said Lt. Col. Barry Glickman, a spokesman for the Air Force's Ballistic Missile Office. It had been known that the Air Force was seeking a second source of IMUs and that Rockwell was the likely choice.
But the Air Force also awarded Northrop a $101.4-million contract Thursday to continue building the guidance component. The contract, under which Northrop is to build 21 IMUs, "confirms the demonstrated performance and reliability of the product and our customer's confidence in the progress we're making to get back on schedule," Tony Cantafio, a Northrop spokesman, said.
The IMU is a basketball-sized device containing 126 pounds of electronics and instruments. It is the "brain" that is supposed to guide each MX missile's 10 warheads to their targets.