Navy to buy jammer that GAO faults Maryland-built radar foil is backed by state delegation

$47.9 million for 36 units

Report says device didn't always protect fighters on missions

February 12, 1997|By Greg Schneider | Greg Schneider,SUN STAFF

The Navy plans to spend almost $50 million on Maryland-built radar jammers despite a report from the General Accounting Office which concludes that the devices are flawed.

The recently issued report finds that the Airborne Self-Protection Jammer, or ASPJ, was effective in protecting fighter planes from a particular missile threat over Bosnia. But the controversial system offered no advantage or even failed against other threats, the report says.

"It's not as bad as opponents thought; it's not as good as proponents thought," said a source familiar with the system's performance. "The real question is, are there other ways to spend that same amount of money that would provide better ways to improve the safety of our pilots and aircraft?"

Maryland's congressional delegation would argue that the money is well spent, having fought to insert the $47.9 million for 36 new units into the 1997 defense bill. The devices are built partly at the Northrop Grumman radar plant in Linthicum, in a joint venture with ITT Avionics of Nutley, N.J.

The Navy has not yet purchased the new units, but plans to have "the bulk of them in the fleet by calendar year 1999," a Navy official said yesterday.

The Pentagon had spent about $2 billion on the $4.8 billion program when it canceled the system in 1992 for persistently failing performance tests. More than 450 plant workers in Linthicum lost their jobs, with just over 100 of a planned 2,400 units delivered.

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, has made the ASPJ "one of her top defense priorities at least as far back as 1993," spokeswoman Claire Hassett said.

Mikulski's efforts got a boost in 1995, when Air Force Capt. Scott O'Grady was shot down over Bosnia by a Serbian surface-to-air missile that could foil the Vietnam-era jammers on American fighter planes. Mikulski, Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes and Navy and Marine pilots urged the Pentagon to haul ASPJs out of mothballs.

The ASPJ, for all its faults, was known to be effective at sending out electronic signals to ward off the particular type of missile that downed O'Grady's F-16.

When ASPJs were finally installed on planes in the Balkans, Mikulski's office said, reports showed that the problems that caused the jammer to fail in 1992 tests were software-related and had been fixed.

But the GAO report says that analyzing all the data from the Balkans and from later testing gives the ASPJ a decidedly mixed grade. The device was indeed effective against the particular missile that hit O'Grady. It was not appreciably better than the old equipment against two other missile systems, though, and failed against a third, the report says.

Recent Department of Defense and Navy studies found that the device still could not be declared "effective and suitable," says the report, which was issued as a Jan. 29 letter to Rep. William V. Roth Jr., the Delaware Republican who is a longtime foe of the program.

"Test results and operational data now available do not support restarting Airborne Self-Protection Jammer production," the report concludes.

Northrop Grumman's Electronic Sensors and Systems Division, the Linthicum plant that makes the device, issued a written statement yesterday disputing the findings.

"The letter from the GAO is misleading and gives the erroneous impression that the Airborne Self-Protection Jammer's performance in the U.S. fleet has been inadequate. Nothing could be further from the truth," the company said.

Citing 20,000 successful hours in flights over Bosnia, the statement also quoted unidentified military officials praising the system. "Fleet aviators have confidence in the ASPJ and they would like to have more ASPJ systems in the fleet," the company said.

When Congress OK'd the $47.9 million for 36 more units, it specified that it was not authorizing a revival of full production. The new batch, Mikulski's spokeswoman said, is aimed at the specific missile system that pilots faced in the Balkans.

In fact, Congress has directed the Navy to look at alternatives in a report due this weekend. The primary system the Navy is considering as a long-term solution for F/A-18 fighter jets is called the Integrated Defensive Electronic Countermeasure.

The GAO is also preparing a report on electronic warfare alternatives.

Mikulski remains a booster for the Linthicum-made jammer.

"I think her bottom line is that the most important test of ASPJ is its proven record in the field and the fact that pilots have confidence when they fly a plane equipped with this device," Hassett said. "They're the ones that requested it."

The Northrop Grumman plant in Linthicum has continued making the units, finding lucrative overseas markets such as air forces in Finland and Switzerland. Just last month, the Northrop Grumman/ITT partnership announced a $100 million sale to South Korea.

Pub Date: 2/12/97

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