On a still, abandoned, shipping dock at the Micronics International Inc. plant in Brea sits a pile of cardboard cases, neatly packed with rows of 10-inch-long, odd-shaped, aluminum devices.
Known as "fuzes," the devices look harmless, a bit like an axle poked through a thick wheel. But put to their intended use, they are the triggers that unleash the destructive power of the warheads in Phoenix air-to-air missiles, the primary weapons for "Top Gun" pilots in Navy F-14 jets.
The Phoenix fuzes--in Navy lingo, the FSU-10--may also have destroyed Micronics. And therein lies a story of institutional conflict, costly misjudgments, bureaucratic shortsightedness and investigative zeal.
The demise of Micronics--a 175-employee company swept into bankruptcy court in mid-September after the Defense Department declared that the firm's quality-control systems had collapsed--is also a story of a procurement system that can make crushing demands on small businesses and then let accountability slip away.
One employee calls the FSU-10 the "demon baby" of Micronics. Born in the tumult after the Shah's fall in Iran, the fuze bound Micronics, the Pentagon and Navy engineers in the Mojave Desert in a rancorous tryst. Today, the reverberations sweep from Orange County to Washington.
Production has been halted at Micronics on not only the FSU-10, but also on safety-and-arming mechanisms for the Sparrow and Sidewinder missiles--both stalwarts of the nation's air defense system. A bankruptcy judge has allowed Hughes Aircraft Co. to temporarily reopen a corner of the plant to complete a set of fuzes for the AMRAAM, the proposed new-generation missile for F-15 and F/A-18 fighters. Preparing other companies to replace Micronics as the supplier to these programs will be costly and will take years, Pentagon officials say.
In Baldwin Park, meantime, the Navy has put a Micronics subcontractor out of the defense business. Near Dayton, Ohio, a tiny firm is trying to recover from the onslaught of investigations that began when Micronics merely proposed using it as a subcontractor.
And while criminal investigators pick through the rubble of Micronics in Brea, careers are on the line in Washington as the military and Congress sort out the mess.
For all the turmoil, the parts that Micronics' workers assembled get the job done. The company didn't follow every specification, the investigators say. Its quality processes may have been muddled. The paper work may be wrong. Over time, missiles will need more testing to make sure that they haven't deteriorated prematurely. But government testing agencies say virtually everything that Micronics delivered works just fine.
So it's no surprise that Micronics' laid-off workers feel jilted. Each day, they marched into work past a plaque that reads, "The Best Damned S-A Devices and Fuzes in the World Are Manufactured Behind This Door." They believed the motto, even when the Pentagon didn't.
"The girls on the line gave it everything we had, and I don't think we deserve this," said Cheryl Breneman of La Habra. "We're not the enemy."
The FSU-10 fuze was a problem child right from its start in 1977, when the Navy proposed development of a radical new safety-and-arming device for the Phoenix missile. Micronics' old version simply ignited the missile warhead. The new fuze was meant to prevent premature firings, too.
Hughes, the prime contractor on the Phoenix, opposed the Navy proposal, arguing that it seemed too risky. Yet the Navy not only went ahead with the project but also assigned the task to Micronics, which had little experience in design work.
Normally, the job would have gone to Navy engineers at China Lake, the sprawling Naval Weapons Center in the Mojave Desert. The design was conceived by the engineers, iconoclastic wizards often at odds with the Pentagon bean counters in the Naval Air Systems Command, or NavAir. But China Lake's engineering staff had recently been cut, so the work was handed to tiny Micronics.
The redesign was far from complete when Islamic fundamentalists drove the Shah of Iran from power in 1979, leaving the original version of the Phoenix in enemy hands. NavAir rushed a new version--including the FSU-10--into production. And disaster unfolded.
Once production began, the Navy initiated hundreds of changes to the fuze's specifications, Micronics officials say. "There was an awful lot of pressure to hurry up development," said Gerry Chalmers, China Lake's chief engineer on the program from 1983 to 1986. "They skipped the prototype step and went from engineering development right into production. They were trying to hold the Naval Weapons Center and Micronics' feet to the fire and make this thing work without a prototype."