Navy seeks to install jammers that failed

May 15, 1993|By John B. O'Donnell | John B. O'Donnell,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Five months after the Pentagon scrapped a Westinghouse project to build an airborne radar jamming system because it did not pass its operational tests, the Navy wants to install units that it has already received on upgraded F-14 fighter jets.

The Navy move comes at a time when Pentagon advocates of the radar jammer and the Maryland congressional delegation are trying to persuade the Defense Department to revive the program, killed by the Bush administration in December.

Installation of the radar jammers on F-14D fighters would probably not mean any additional work for Westinghouse, since the units are already in the hands of the Navy. But it would be an important psychological boost for the Linthicum defense plant, raising the possibility that satisfactory performance by the radar jammers could lead to reopening production.

In December, former Defense Secretary Dick Cheney killed the program after the Pentagon director of tests and evaluation told him that testing last summer showed the radar jammer -- known as the airborne self-protection jammer (ASPJ) -- "is not operationally effective and not operationally suitable." This was the latest in a series of test failures.

Westinghouse, which laid off 460 Baltimore-area workers in February after the program's cancellation, had no comment on the Navy move to put the radar jammer on the F-14D.

Westinghouse and ITT Avionics of Nutley, N.J., were jointly developing the radar jammer. The Pentagon had spent $1.5 billion over 16 years on efforts to develop it. At one time, the Air Force and the Navy had planned to purchase up to 2,200 of the units at a cost of $9 billion, but the Air Force dropped out of the program in 1989 because of the radar jammer's chronic problems.

Had the radar jammer passed the tests and gone to full production, the Pentagon was expected to select either Westinghouse or ITT to build them.

Opponents of the radar jammer see the Navy move as an effort to revive a weapons system that survived long after it should have been terminated, at a waste of hundreds of millions of dollars.

"It's another tactic to find a foothold" for the radar jammer, said an aide to Sen. David Pryor, an Arkansas Democrat and one of the system's chief opponents.

But the Navy faces a critical obstacle in its effort to put the radar jammer on the 55 upgraded F-14s -- lack of money. The defense appropriations bill for the current year included $7.8 million for test and evaluation of the radar jammer. After the system failed operational tests last summer, the Senate amended the bill, at the behest of Senators Pryor and William V. Roth Jr., a Delaware Republican, to say that those funds could be used for termination of the program.

Although some defense experts on Capitol Hill think the funds could be used to install the radar jammer on the F-14D, the Navy general counsel said last month that they could not. So, the system's backers hope to include in the appropriations bill for next year language to allow installation of the units on the fighters.

A spokesman for Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, who has been pressing the Pentagon to retest the radar jammer, said the Baltimore Democrat "strongly supports the use of the $7.8 million for a fair and objective evaluation."

The system, installed on combat aircraft, is a series of black boxes that sorts out incoming radar signals and then jams, or confuses, the radar of threatening anti-aircraft weapons. The F-14 is a fighter designed to gain and hold air superiority over the battlefield. The Navy is upgrading 55 of the planes with updated software and avionics, a move that will also give the planes the capability to act as bombers.

Asked why the Navy wants to use a weapons system that failed its operational tests, a Navy spokeswoman said the F-14D was designed to use that system. If the radar jammer is not installed on the planes, there is no alternative available, she said.

The system, said Lt. Sharon Heath, passed its tests in 18 of 22 areas. Three of the four other areas involved software problems, which she said were "easily correctable."

The fourth area of failure involved survivability of the aircraft in combat -- the radar jammers didn't meet the criteria set.

"It's better to have something that has done a good job in 18 areas on the F-14 than to have nothing on it," she said.

The Navy decision to acquire radar jammers beyond those needed for testing was sharply criticized by the Navy inspector general and on Capitol Hill. After the system failed to pass a series of tests four years ago, the Navy went ahead with additional orders, saying it wanted to maintain the "vendor base" for the radar jammer. This move draw a strong rebuke from the Pentagon inspector general because it represented a move away from the concept of holding down production until completion of testing and evaluation.

The Navy had ordered 136 of the units, and 95 had been delivered when the program ended. With the Clinton administration now in office, John M. Deutch, the new undersecretary of defense for acquisitions, is being asked by Pentagon proponents of the radar jammer to revive the program. Mr. Deutch, who is expected to make a decision next month, refused this week to comment on his deliberations.

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