The Navy--ignoring Pentagon investigators' warnings--has permitted a missile manufacturer to continue using electronic switches whose faulty production by a small Southland firm could render the missiles' warheads useless, the head of a congressional oversight panel has charged.
Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich), in a letter released Wednesday, asked Defense Secretary Dick Cheney to order independent testing of the inexpensive switches made by Asher Engineering Corp. in Baldwin Park to determine the harm, if any, done by alleged shoddy manufacturing practices.
In the worst case, Dingell warned, flaws in the switches could force the "recall of seven years of missile production."
The Times reported in March that Asher's failure to properly test the tiny switches, which cost less than $20 each, had Pentagon officials concerned about the effectiveness of many of the tactical missiles in the U.S. arsenal. The switches are a critical piece of the firing mechanisms in Phoenix, Harm, Harpoon, AAMRAM, Standard, Sidewinder and Maverick missiles.
Dingell, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and its investigations subcommittee, said the Navy ignored critical audits of Asher by its own investigators in issuing a waiver last month that allowed Texas Instruments to install the switches in more than 350 Harm missiles.
Just last week, the Navy's top quality-control official added his own objections, warning that test results to date did not justify using the switches and that their use posed "potential serious hazard to personnel, aircraft and missiles," according to an internal Navy memo released by the subcommittee.
Sees No Problem
Defense Department and Navy spokesmen declined to comment Wednesday on Dingell's letter. A Texas Instruments official, however, said the switches had been thoroughly tested and that none had failed.
"The missile is warrantied, and we make sure the parts are good before we use them," said G. Dean Clubb, senior vice president and missile systems manager for Texas Instruments' defense systems and electronics group in Dallas. "There is no doubt in my mind these (switches) will certainly meet the needs of the missile system."
The Defense Criminal Investigative Service has recommended that federal prosecutors in Los Angeles seek indictments of officials of Asher and Micronics International, a Brea company that is the prime contractor for the missile firing mechanisms of which Asher's switches are a part, according to William G. Dupree, the Pentagon's deputy assistant inspector general for investigations.
Dingell's letter said the Defense Department investigators have found that the switches did not meet military specifications, that they had not been tested correctly and that Asher was using equipment that had not been checked against Pentagon standards for as long as seven years.
Bud Asher, president of the firm, could not be reached for comment Wednesday. He told The Times in March that Micronics officials, under pressure from the military to deliver firing mechanisms on time, had ordered Asher employees to falsely certify that the switches met government specifications.
Micronics since last fall has been the subject of a criminal investigation of alleged short cuts in its manufacture of firing mechanisms for the Phoenix missile. The Times reported in October that flaws in the devices had forced the Navy to mothball 500 missiles worth $425 million until replacement parts could be installed.
Passed Both Tests
Micronics officials have denied any wrongdoing. G. Addison Appleby, chairman and chief executive of Micronics' parent company, La Jolla-based Precision Aerotech, said Wednesday that he knew of no grounds on which Micronics could be indicted.
Like Clubb, Appleby said the Asher switches had passed tests conducted by both the Navy and independent labs. The only certifications signed by Asher officials, he added, were those requested by the Navy.
"It's my understanding the problem is all in paper work," Appleby said.
In his letter, however, Dingell said the testing of the switches was suspect.
"There has been some limited functional testing done to date that indicates the switches work," he said. "However, these tests are tainted by allegations that the switches were handpicked and not representative of Asher production. In fact, it is alleged that the testers were directed to 'find some switches that work.' "
Dingell said Cheney needed to be alert to bureaucratic tendencies in the Pentagon to overlook flaws in the switches.
"The possible recall of seven years' worth of missile production will create tremendous pressure within the system to use the substandard or defective components," Dingell said in the letter. One admiral, he said, told the subcommittee that fleet commanders "would rather have missiles that do not work than no missiles at all."