Army fires engineer who sought details on risk to copters in Saudi Arabia

October 30, 1990|By Mark Thompson | Mark Thompson,Knight-Ridder News Service

WASHINGTON -- The Army fired, handcuffed and removed from office a veteran engineer for allegedly threatening to disclose that many troop-carrying helicopters primed for war in Saudi Arabia lack protection against Iraqi heat-seeking missiles.

Calvin J. Weber, a 16-year Army civilian employee, was fired last week for seeking information about the vulnerabilities of Army helicopters now in Saudi Arabia and "intimating" he would make it public, the Army said yesterday.

"Information regarding equipment vulnerabilities, especially during the pendency of Operation Desert Shield, is very sensitive, and its disclosure could be highly detrimental to the security of the United States," Col. Thomas E. Reinkober told Mr. Weber in a one-page memo ordering him to leave his office at the Army Aviation Systems Command in St. Louis.

Mr. Weber did go public with his story yesterday after his dismissal Thursday, when federal police led him from his office in handcuffs after he refused to leave voluntarily. Army officials ordered him to surrender his Army building pass and parking decal.

Mr. Weber said roughly 800 of the Army's 1,062 UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters lack infrared suppressors. The suppressors are muffler-like devices installed over both of the Black Hawk's 1,560-horsepower turbine engines. They are designed to cool the exhaust before it leaves the power plants and to hide the red-hot turbine blades from heat-seeking missiles.

The Army has about 300 Black Hawks in Saudi Arabia -- more than any other type of helicopter -- to ferry troops to the front and to evacuate casualties from the battlefield. Mr. Weber estimated about 200 of them lack the suppressors.

While the Army declined to say how many of the UH-60s now in Saudi Arabia lack suppressors, Black Hawks recently photographed there did not have them.

Without suppressors, the helicopters are vulnerable to Iraq's arsenal of Soviet-made anti-aircraft missiles that home in on the engine's hot exhaust, according to Pentagon and industry officials.

Army officials declined to discuss the subject.

Other versions of the Black Hawk -- including nine built for White House use -- have the infrared suppressors.

A 1985 Pentagon study concluded that 90 percent of the aircraft downed in combat from 1975 and 1985 were destroyed by heat-seeking missiles. Most of the losses were Soviet aircraft downed by Afghan rebels equipped with portable, U.S.-made, Stinger heat-seeking missiles.

"If you have a heat-seeking missile fired at you, you'll be in real trouble without the suppressors," according to Matthew Ellis, formerly the top safety official with Sikorsky Helicopters, which builds the UH-60 for the Army. "In the combat environment, it can mean the difference between life and death."

A congressional investigator who has studied the issue confirmed Mr. Weber's claims. "A portion of the Black Hawk fleet doesn't have any protection," he said. "It looks like the Army may be in a bind."

The $7 million Black Hawks, which carry 11 troops and a crew of three, were supposed to have suppressors installed on them as they were built, Mr. Ellis said.

But the Army scrapped the original suppressor design because it was heavy, prone to cracks and worked only when the helicopter was cruising, Mr. Weber said. Consequently, the roughly 800 UH-60s delivered to the Army from 1979 to 1987 lack suppressors.

The General Electric Co. began furnishing better suppressors to the Army in 1987. They have been installed aboard the roughly 250 UH-60s delivered since then and, unlike the earlier design, also work when the helicopter is hovering.

On July 25 -- a week before Iraq invaded Kuwait -- the Army awarded an $8.3 million contract to General Electric, without competition, to begin producing the stainless steel suppressors for the older Black Hawks for about $50,000 each. According to the contract announcement, that work will not be completed until 1995.

Mr. Weber, 48, was earning about $43,000 annually as one of the handful of Army engineers working to make aircraft less vulnerable to enemy missiles. He said he was challenging his firing and would plead innocent to the disorderly conduct charge filed against him last week.

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