Marine fliers request rejected radar jammer

July 07, 1995|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite and Ted Shelsby | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite and Ted Shelsby,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- The Navy wants to use Maryland-made radar jammers, which failed crucial Pentagon tests three years ago, to protect Marine fighter planes patrolling the "no-fly" zone over Bosnia.

Despite the test failure, the Navy and Marines believe that the system, which emits electronic signals to defend the planes against missile attacks, is more effective than the planes' current jamming equipment, which dates to the Vietnam era.

"Hey, it's not perfect," said a senior Marine officer. "But it works better than what we have now. So let's hang it on those planes."

The issue puts into conflict the wishes of pilots to have whatever protection they can get and the re- sponsibility of systems evaluators to make sure that equipment works properly before being used.

The Navy has kept 102 of the radar jammers, known as the Airborne Self-Protection Jammer (ASPJ), in a warehouse in Indiana since the program was canceled three years ago. The ASPJs, which cost a total of $2 billion, were made by Linthicum-based Westinghouse Electric Corp. Electronic Systems Group and ITT Defense of Nutley, N.J.

At one time, the Air Force and the Navy planned to buy up to 2,200 of the jammers, at a cost of $9 billion. The cancellation of the program, after the devices failed in-flight tests, cost 451 jobs at the local Westinghouse unit in early 1993.

Maryland's two Democratic senators, who criticized the original cancellation decision, wrote yesterday to Defense Secretary William J. Perry, urging him to install the jammers on the Marine planes "without delay."

Arguing that the downing of Air Force Capt. Scott F. O'Grady over Bosnia five weeks ago "shows that our aircraft are not adequately protected," the two senators, Paul S. Sarbanes and Barbara A. Mikulski, told Mr. Perry: "Our existing radar jamming devices . . . leave our pilots vulnerable to today's sophisticated surface-to-air missiles.

"We urge you to install the ASPJs, which would provide greater protection for our pilots who are enforcing the no-fly zone over Bosnia."

Mr. Perry last night was awaiting the recommendations of Paul Kaminsky, the Pentagon's acquisition chief, and Gen. John M. Shalikashvili, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, before making his decision.

A favorable decision by Mr. Perry would not likely mean more work for Westinghouse, because the units have already been shipped to the Navy. But it would be a psychological boost to the Anne Arundel County defense plant, raising the possibility that a satisfactory performance by the jammers in Bosnia could lead to new production.

It would also enhance the radar jammer's appeal to foreign buyers. Foreign sales were threatened last July, when Sen. David Pryor, an Arkansas Democrat and leading critic of the jammer program, proposed blocking sales of the jammers to foreign military governments. But Senators Sarbanes and Mikulski defeated his effort on the Senate floor.

Senator Pryor expressed opposition to supplying the jammer to the Marines, saying: "It is inconceivable to me that an operational testing program would be bypassed in making this decision.

"This jammer was canceled because its defects would give our pilots a false sense of security," he said. "That is not the type of problem we want our pilots to face when flying over Bosnia."

Ann Grizzel, a spokeswoman for Westinghouse, declined to comment yesterday on the Marine request for the jammers. But she said the company was still producing the jammers to fill export orders from Finland and Switzerland.

The local Westinghouse division has been hit hard by Pentagon budget cuts and program cancellations in recent years. Since 1988, it has eliminated more than 7,000 jobs through layoff and attrition to reduce its employment in Maryland to about 9,500 workers.

The request to install the jammers came from Marine pilots based in Aviano, Italy, who routinely fly 12 FA-18D Hornets in patrol over Bosnia. After a SA-6 missile shot down Captain O'Grady's F-16 jet fighter, the pilots evaluated their abilities to foil missile attack, and decided to seek approval for the ASPJ.

Their request was relayed via Adm. Leighton W. Smith, the U.S. Navy commander in Europe, to the chief of naval operations, Adm. Jeremy M. Boorda, at the Pentagon.

The Navy then ordered new tests with an F-18 using the jammer system. Those tests showed it was particularly effective against simulated SA-6 attacks. SA-6 missiles, used by Bosnian Serb rebels, pose a major threat to allied planes enforcing the "no-fly" zone over Bosnia. The Navy is now also testing the system for use on its carrier-based F-14Ds.

Twenty-four units, which can connect to the same internal wiring as the current jamming system in F-18s, could be en route to Aviano as early as today, if Mr. Perry approves their installation.

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