Political implications keeping jammer alive Md. ties benefit Westinghouse project

June 09, 1993|By John B. O'Donnell | John B. O'Donnell,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- When Secretary of Defense Les Aspin toured the Westinghouse plant in Linthicum earlier this year with President Clinton, he got what one participant called "the 1-2-3 punch" from the Maryland congressional delegation.

"Come here, I want to talk to you," Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski said to Mr. Aspin, according to a witness, as she led him to a nearby office for a short but intense chat. Later Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes and Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin got in their licks.

They were bending Mr. Aspin's ear over a Westinghouse defense contract for radar jamming devices that had been killed by President George Bush's administration three months earlier because they failed operational tests. It potentially meant hundreds of millions of dollars to Westinghouse and prompted the layoff of 460 people in the Baltimore area and another 300 at ITT Avionics, which also was working on the system, in Clifton, N.J.

The lobbying to save a program the Defense Department first tried to eliminate in 1990 shows how difficult it is to kill a weapons system and how political considerations complicate efforts to reduce the deficit by trimming the military budget.

The Maryland lobbying campaign includes an unusual coalition -- liberal members of Congress scarcely known as pro-defense teaming up with conservative Republican Reps. Wayne Gilchrest and Roscoe G. Bartlett, both of whom represent districts that include Westinghouse plants. The Republicans argue that it is more prudent to fix a program on which $1.5 billion has already been spent than, as Mr. Bartlett puts it, "to re-invent the wheel."

Working with the Maryland delegation to revive the program are New Jersey members of Congress, officials of Westinghouse and ITT, which jointly developed the radar jammer, and its advocates within the Pentagon.

Their efforts have already paid off to an extent, drawing agreement from the Clinton administration for a high-level review of the program that at one time was expected to cost upward of $9 billion. It is rare for the Pentagon to reconsider a weapons system it had previously canceled, but there is precedent. President Ronald Reagan's administration revived the B-1 bomber that President Jimmy Carter wanted to kill.

The Clinton administration is conducting a comprehensive review of military needs, but a spokeswoman would not say if any other weapons systems that have been canceled are being reviewed.

Known as the Airborne Self-Protection Jammer, the system is designed to protect combat aircraft by thwarting radar-guided weapons.

The Pentagon at one time planned to order some 2,300 radar jammers, but the Air Force dropped out in 1989, opting to find another way to protect its planes electronically. That left the Navy planning to buy about 700 of them.

The jammer's troubled history has been marked by accusations that Pentagon testers skewed test results and changed testing requirements in an effort to keep the program alive. In 1990, when the military budget was being drawn up, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney decided to end the program, but he reversed himself a few days later.

The radar jammer underwent what was expected to be its final series of tests last year. The Pentagon had planned, after successful completion of the tests, to choose a single contractor -- either Westinghouse or ITT -- to build the remaining units. But the system failed its operational tests, prompting Congress to cut funding and prompting Mr. Cheney -- after being advised that the radar jammer "is not operationally effective and not operationally suitable" -- to cancel existing contracts.

Proponents are now trying to persuade the new Defense Department hierarchy that some problems that cropped up in the tests have been corrected and that the scoring of a crucial test -- survivability of aircraft in combat -- was faulty.

Survivability factor

According to proponents, testing criteria required that survivability of planes equipped with the radar jammer improve 30 percent over survivability of aircraft that didn't carry it. Test aircraft flew at three different altitude scenarios, and the jammer failed to improve survivability by 30 percent only at the lowest altitude.

That was because aircraft survival without the radar jammer was bTC so high that survivability of jammer-equipped planes could increase by 30 percent only if there was a magical increase in the number of planes. More planes would have had to survive the battle than had entered it, advocates of the radar jammer argue.

They say only the low-altitude scores were used in the test results.

Of the other 21 operational tests, the system failed only three -- two of which involved the aircraft, not the radar jammer -- and those problems have been corrected, Westinghouse says.

Some proponents of the radar jammer argue that a new set of tests should be ordered, while others say that retesting is not necessary -- that a new analysis of test data would show that the tests actually were passed.

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