Civilian fired for disclosing that helicopters aren't safe

October 31, 1990|By Knight-Ridder

WASHINGTON -- The Army fired, handcuffed and removed from office a veteran engineer for 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 Monday.

"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 Weber in a one-page memo ordering him to leave his office at the Army Aviation Systems Command in St. Louis.

Weber did go public with his story Monday following his dismissal last 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.

Weber said that 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. Weber estimates 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. "Anything that deals with the limitations and capabilities of systems assigned to Saudi Arabia cannot be discussed," said spokesman Bob Hunt of the Aviation Systems Command.

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."

Weber and other Pentagon officials, speaking anonymously, said older Black Hawks lacking the suppressors could be up to 10 times more likely to be destroyed by heat-seeking missiles. Electronic jammers on all UH-60s do a "poor" job of foiling heat-seeking missiles when used alone, one said.

A congressional investigator who has studied the issue confirmed 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 Army's AH-64 Apache gunship has suppressors but carries only two soldiers. In contrast, the Black Hawk would be the primary means of moving troops by air in the event of war along the Saudi-Kuwait border, the investigator said.

"All our troops are being carried inside those suckers -- that's the scary part of it," said the investigator, who declined to be named. "The Army's attitude seems to be if we put an infrared signature into the sky we just hope Saddam and his boys ignore it."

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, 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, Weber said.

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

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