Sky-spy deal is flying along But GAO wants JSTARS delayed for additional testing

Big contract for Northrop

Proponents say system proved its worth in gulf war and Bosnia

September 29, 1996|By Greg Schneider | Greg Schneider,SUN STAFF

Despite questions about whether an innovative battlefield spy plane has proved its worth, the Pentagon is forging ahead with plans to purchase 18 of the aircraft from Northrop Grumman.

The General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, has written to Defense Secretary William J. Perry with a series of concerns about why the Air Force is rushing into production with the $9 billion Joint Surveillance and Target Attack Radar System, or JSTARS.

The GAO says the system has not been properly tested, but the Air Force insists that JSTARS has excelled in the toughest testing possible -- under hostile conditions in the Persian Gulf war and in Bosnia. What's more, the Clinton administration is eager to sell JSTARS to NATO, which will discuss the system and competing European products during a meeting in November.

A hitch in production now, some have pointed out, would be a bad signal to NATO about the effectiveness of what could be a highly useful -- and profitable -- system. A NATO purchase could be worth more than $5 billion.

The Electronic Sensors and Systems Division of Northrop Grumman in Linthicum is overseeing production of the radar for the plane. The advanced radar is the key to the system, which takes old Boeing 707s and outfits them with high-tech synthetic aperture radar to survey battle zones. The planes make minutely detailed reports back to ground stations maintained by the Army.

Unlike the Air Force's longstanding AWACS system, which uses a specially equipped plane to provide a radar picture of all other planes in the sky, JSTARS surveys the ground.

Northrop Grumman spent almost 10 years testing the system with three developmental planes. It delivered the first production model in March, and was awaiting final OK to start cranking out the remaining 18 planned planes.

Defense analyst Thomas J. Schulz of the GAO said his letter last week to Perry was an effort to slow down the process.

And while Pentagon acquisition chief Paul Kaminsky did issue a memo on Thursday directing the Air Force to fully examine the program's affordability, sustainability and testing deficiencies, he also approved the order for the planes.

"These are pretty serious questions," Schulz said. "Why are [they] moving so fast to commit to buy these things when [they] haven't answered the questions yet?"

Because the circumstances in Bosnia were so unpredictable, 14 tests that operators wanted to run on the system either could not be demonstrated or failed to meet standards, Schulz said. What's more, Bosnia did not give the military a chance to use JSTARS in combat -- a crucial venue.

JSTARS did see combat scenarios in the Persian Gulf war, but those were earlier prototypes of the system.

Several software glitches also cropped up in Bosnia that platoons of workers from Northrop Grumman were on hand to fix and refine.

Federal laws, however, require the military to test new devices on their own before going into full production.

Having as many as 80 Northrop Grumman employees on hand in Bosnia made the JSTARS tests more of a contractor demonstration than a real-world trial, Schulz said.

"They literally flew the thing and made it work," Schulz said. "You don't have those problem-solvers there to help you during wartime."

Air Force evaluators raised similar questions in June, but a Pentagon spokeswoman said the GAO letter overstated the Air Force concerns.

Evaluators did identify software problems with JSTARS, said Lt. Col. Joan Ferguson, "and there is a plan in place to address that issue."

But the suggestion that the testing violated regulations because so many Northrop Grumman employees took part is moot, she said, because the Air Force agreed to the arrangement when it decided to throw the system into the Bosnian war zone. All the incidents where contractors had to help fix the equipment have been taken into consideration as the Air Force evaluated the system, she said.

And the performance of the system itself, she said, was impressive. Ferguson noted that when Bosnian troops started getting unruly, American peacekeepers used their all-seeing JSTARS surveillance photos to intimidate them.

Northrop Grumman is following the questions about one of its biggest contracts from a careful distance.

"Whether it was tested properly or not is a subject for discussion among the Air Force and the Department of Defense, and I guess now the GAO," said Larry Hamilton, a corporate spokesman.

While the plane's radar is produced by the Electronic Sensors and Systems Division, the actual work is done at the Norden Systems subsidiary in Connecticut. No Maryland jobs hang in the balance over the system's fate, and Hamilton declined to speculate on the possible impact of any delay in the program.

Investment analyst Paul H. Nisbet of JSA Research Inc. in Newport, R.I., brushes off the GAO's criticisms of JSTARS.

"I would say these are purely excuses," Nisbet said. "I mean, this system performed extremely well in the gulf war, and here we are five years later and still going through hoops before we can get this thing into production."

The Clinton administration is certainly interested in getting JSTARS into production. Several European programs are competing for the NATO contract, including an aircraft from England and a helicopter-based system from Italy.

National security adviser Anthony Lake circulated a memo last month to the secretaries of state, defense and commerce and to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff urging them to promote their country's product.

"I am writing to be sure you know that the president is personally committed to JSTARS, has engaged [German] Chancellor [Helmut] Kohl on this issue and will continue his personal involvement with key allies to ensure our goal is achieved," Lake wrote.

Pub Date: 9/29/96

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