Flawed Navy plane OK'd in silence Pentagon was not told about wing fault in Super Hornet fighter

'Keeping with tradition'

Planes purchased in March

Boeing, Navy work on repair

December 07, 1997|By Greg Schneider | Greg Schneider,SUN STAFF

The Navy has known for more than 20 months that its new Super Hornet fighter jet has a vexing problem with its wing, but did not notify Pentagon decision-makers until after they made a commitment last spring to start buying the plane.

A Navy official said the scope of the potentially major problem was not apparent in March when the Pentagon agreed to buy an initial dozen of the $70 million plane -- a decision widely seen as giving the Super Hornet an advantage over other costly jet programs jockeying for money from Congress.

Several defense experts, though, said the lack of notice is an example of the pressure programs face not to admit flaws when their future is in question.

The wing flaw causes the plane to suddenly dip to one side during a combat maneuver, forcing the pilot to break off from his target. A Navy official suggested last month in a memo that the problem could require a complete redesign of the wing, a costly step that could threaten the very program.

Now testers at the Patuxent River Naval Air Station and with prime contractor Boeing Co. say they are closing in on a far less drastic solution, involving changes to the leading edge of the wing.

"We're to the point where we think we're there, in that we've seen several promising configurations. But until we can get it to consistently be solved, it won't be done," said Capt. Jeff Wieringa, the deputy program manager.

The problem was first noted in March 1996 on only the seventh test flight of the F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet, Wieringa said. At that time, the plane was undergoing a limited range of maneuvers, or flight envelope.

"It's taken us through the early part of this year to get the envelope opened enough to fully characterize the problem," Wieringa said. Program officials at first thought the problem could be corrected by simply adjusting the computer software that controls wing flaps, according to Navy documents leaked to the media last week.

And when a Defense Acquisition Board met on March 14, 1997, to consider taking the program from development to initial production, the wing problem was not brought up because it was just one of some 400 "challenges" that had to be addressed, Wieringa said.

"At that point we were carrying it as medium risk. There were other things higher at the time," he said -- such as a publicized problem with engine cracks that has since been overcome.

Paul Kaminski, then the under secretary of defense for acquisitions, signed a memo on March 26 authorizing the Navy to purchase the first 12 Super Hornets and to begin the process of acquiring 50 more.

That was an important milestone, experts say, because programs are difficult to cancel once they enter production.

Kaminski -- who has since stepped down from the Pentagon post -- said last week that he "knew nothing about this problem at that time." Asked whether he should have been told, Kaminski said "not necessarily. I think it was the judgment of the [contractor-military] team at that point that it was not the degree of problem worth raising."

Navy documents make clear that officials did know at least a month before Kaminski signed the order that fixing the problem was going to require modifications to the wing, and not just software changes.

Lawrence Korb, an assistant defense secretary during the Reagan administration, said that such a problem should have been discussed. He added, though, that its omission was not surprising.

"There was no incentive for them to say how bad it was This is squarely in keeping with tradition, I'm sad to say," said Korb, now a fellow with the Brookings Institution.

He cited the B-1 bomber, the C-5 transport plane and the cancelled A-12 attack jet as examples of programs that got glowing reports during development and then turned out to have significant cost or equipment problems.

"The whole process, from start to finish, makes it hard to be completely honest," Korb said.

Last spring, he pointed out, the Super Hornet also faced the intense scrutiny of the Quadrennial Defense Review. Even without disclosure of the wing problem, that military planning study recommended reducing the purchase from 1,000 Super Hornets to between 785 and 550.

Congress, too, has been sharpening its rhetoric about how the Pentagon can afford the Super Hornet, the Air Force F-22 fighter plane and the multiservice Joint Strike Fighter at the same time.

Under those circumstances, "the goal of any large program should be to keep a low profile," said Brett Lambert, an analyst with the DFI International defense consulting firm.

Lambert said he doubted there was any "intent to deceive" in the Navy's failure to reveal the wing problem earlier. Instead, the situation demonstrates that a program touted for its openness "should have had more transparency," he said.

Now the late-breaking revelation will provide fodder for political ambush next year, he said.

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