Super Hornet stung by GAO Draft study asks halt to purchase of fighter to correct problems

January 16, 1998|By Greg Schneider | Greg Schneider,SUN STAFF

A draft study from the General Accounting Office calls on the Pentagon to stop buying Boeing F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet fighter planes until the Navy fixes several potentially serious problems.

The unreleased study, obtained by The Sun, also suggests that the Navy has underestimated the cost of developing and buying the plane.

"We believe that [the Department of Defense] and the Navy need to adopt a more cautious approach as they make funding decisions for the E/F program," the report says.

While some experts derided the study as political posturing, the report nonetheless bruises the Super Hornet as Congress prepares to debate the 1999 defense budget next month. The Navy fighter is battling the Air Force F-22 and the multiservice Joint Strike Fighter for scarce funding.

Sen. Russell D. Feingold, the Wisconsin Democrat who requested the study, said that the draft "reveals serious problems continue to plague the program and cast serious doubt on the future of the F/A-18 E/F program as currently proposed."

It was disclosed last month that the Super Hornet, which is being flight-tested at the Patuxent River Naval Air Station, has a tendency to dip to one side during a crucial combat maneuver. The dip, called a "wing drop," forces the pilot to pull out of a turn and break off from his target.

Redesigning the wing to fix the problem would bring a major cost increase to one of the most expensive Pentagon programs now in production. But Navy officials reiterated yesterday that they think they have found a series of inexpensive solutions -- including putting sandpaper and other materials on the wing to change the air flow -- and that a redesign will not be necessary.

But the GAO report, which is scheduled to be released by late February or early March, says the fixes have not yet eliminated the wing-drop problem at altitudes below 15,000 feet and in air-to-air tracking tasks.

Furthermore, until the Navy finishes testing the modifications, "their impact on such things as the F/A-18 E/F's speed and maneuverability, range, weight and the planned reduced radar cross section of the aircraft will not be known," the report says.

The GAO report highlights several other problems, including: Weapons dropped from the Super Hornet tend to get caught in the air flow and bump into one another or even the plane itself.

Several classified features designed to make the plane less visible to radar are being compromised by such problems as seal failures, damage to special coatings, door latches and laminated surfaces peeling off of the wings.

A series of engine problems -- such as occasional failures during flight and ground tests, excessive smoke, and extended warm-up time -- has delayed development up to eight months and increased costs 4 percent but is not thought to be critical.

Because of those unknowns and others, the GAO recommends "that the Secretary of Defense direct the Secretary of the Navy to not approve contracting for any additional F/A-18 E/F aircraft until the Navy demonstrates through flight testing that identified aircraft deficiencies have been corrected."

The Pentagon approved initial production of 12 Super Hornets last year. Congress appropriated more than $2.4 billion for the program for this year, including money for another 20 planes.

The Navy's decision to release money for those next 20 planes was postponed from last month until March, pending the outcome of the wing-drop problem.

The GAO report suggests that the series of problems with the Super Hornet may boost the program's cost. Congress has capped the plane's development budget at $4.88 billion in 1990 dollars, but the GAO says fixing the wing drop and other problems "will likely cause the $4.88 billion development cost estimate to be exceeded."

Navy officials, however, say the program will not exceed the development cap.

What no one disputes, though, is that the cost of each Super Hornet will go up. The Navy had planned to buy 1,000 Super Hornets for about $57 million each in 1997 dollars, with a total program cost of about $79.5 billion.

Last year, the Pentagon decided to buy only 548 of the planes, banking that the Joint Strike Fighter will replace it sooner than originally planned. A smaller purchase jacks up the unit price to about $76 million in 1998 dollars, according to the Navy. But the diminished overall program will cost only about $47 billion.

The GAO report suggests that those figures could go higher because the Navy plans to buy more two-seat versions of the plane, which cost at least $1.5 million more apiece.

The Defense Department and the Navy are preparing responses to the GAO report and declined to comment until that process is complete. The GAO declined to comment for the same reason.

The fact that the study was prepared at the request of Feingold, a Super Hornet critic, led some experts to dismiss it.

"I would bet my next paycheck that the GAO person assigned to that study knew exactly what result the congressperson wanted and came up with it," said Paul Nisbet, an analyst with JSA Research Inc.

The Super Hornet's problems are nothing unusual for a complex fighter jet at this stage of its development, said Bert Cooper, a warplane expert at the Congressional Research Service. What is more troubling, he said, is that the Navy allowed the Pentagon to start production of the plane before addressing the concerns.

Pub Date: 1/16/98

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