Navy fires top aide for hiding troubles with Stealth bomber

December 05, 1990|By Knight-Ridder News Service

WASHINGTON -- The Navy forced its top uniformed procurement officer into retirement yesterday and censured two others for failing to report serious flaws with the A-12 Stealth bomber, which is $1 billion over budget and a year behind schedule.

The shake-up followed a Navy investigation showing that its highest-ranking procurement officers ignored their own analyst's warnings of problems with the bomber, being developed jointly by McDonnell Douglas and General Dynamics.

Instead, the officers passed along to superiors the contractors' overly optimistic progress reports to keep the program fully funded, according to the 37-page Navy report released yesterday.

Navy Secretary H. Lawrence Garrett III announced that Vice Adm. Richard C. Gentz, chief of the Naval Air Systems Command, would retire no later than Feb. 1, 1991. The A-12 program executive officer, Rear Adm. John F. Calvert, and the program manager, Capt. Lawrence G. Elberfeld, were censured and taken off the program, the Navy said.

The Navy did not appoint replacements for the three officers.

Congressional sources said the problems with the plane are so grave that Defense Department Comptroller Sean O'Keefe has proposed halting the A-12's development until 1995 to help the Pentagon meet spending cuts required under the recent congressional budget agreement.

"The floors in the [aircraft fabrication] plants where [Navy officials] were told there was machinery have just got chalk marks there," said Representative Andy Ireland, R-Fla., who requested the investigation into the bomber. "They've got some really bad problems."

A prototype of the first A-12 was supposed to be airworthy by July, but the most recent estimate is that a prototype will not fly until December 1991 and at a cost of at least $1 billion more than the expected $4.8 billion. The A-12 is called a Stealth bomber because of its wedge shape and its ability to evade detection by radar.

The carrier-based A-12 is supposed to begin replacing the Navy's aging fleet of A-6 Intruder attack planes in 1995 and to serve as a mainstay well into the next century.

The program has proved an embarrassment to Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, who personally assured the House Armed Service Committee April 26 that all was well with the plane.

Barely a month later, on June 1, the contractor team admitted that the plane was late, had failed to meet some specifications and was $1 billion over budget.

Subsequent investigations disclosed that top Navy procurement officials failed to tell Mr. Cheney of the plane's problems at top-level aircraft review meetings in March and April.

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