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Navy Details Flaws in New Version of Phoenix Missile

The Washington Post

The new version of the Phoenix missile, the Navy’s most sophisticated and costly weapon for long-range aerial combat, has been so plagued by production flaws that the service has refused to send it to the fleet and has ordered overhauls of almost 300 missiles, according to Navy officials and documents.

Delivery of the Phoenix is about 1 1/2 years behind schedule because of faulty target detection and rocket ignition devices, as well as slowdowns in production of the missile on Hughes Aircraft’s assembly lines, Capt. Jesse Stewart, program manager for the Navy’s air-to-air missile systems, said in an interview.

2,694 Defects Found

In addition, a Navy inspection of a Phoenix missile in June found 2,694 defects ranging from soldering problems to foreign material that could cause electrical short circuits. The subsequent Navy “tear-down report” said that some of those flaws could potentially affect the missile’s reliability and that “results indicate that the hardware does not satisfy contract quality requirements.” Hughes has denied that the problems would affect the missile’s performance.

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The troubled Phoenix AIM-54C, an advanced version of the Phoenix missile currently in use, is considered a key component of the Navy’s defense system because of what the service says is its “over the horizon” capability to destroy targets up to 124 miles away.

The new version of the weapon, which has cost $1.7 billion to date, is expected to cost $5.3 billion by fiscal year 1998, when full production of 7,200 missiles is complete, according to a spokesman for the Naval Air Systems Command.

The latest delays in delivery of the new Phoenix missiles, which cost $1.3 million each to develop and produce, are part of a continuing production problem with the long-range missiles. Stewart said the Navy expects to send the first of the new missiles into the fleet, where they will be used by F-14 Tomcat fighters, in October.

Pentagon officials first detected major problems with the Phoenix two years ago. Hughes Aircraft shut down its Phoenix assembly line for six months in 1984 because of major quality-control problems and “marginal workmanship” cited by Navy and Air Force inspectors.

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But less than a year after Hughes reopened the line--and weeks before the first missiles were to be delivered to the fleet--Navy tests revealed that a flaw in the missile’s target detection device could prevent it from identifying targets. Tin surrounding the device showed signs of growing “whiskers” that could create a short in the detection system, Stewart said.

One Navy official described that fault as a potential disaster for pilots using the missile to protect the Navy’s aircraft carriers from the long-range threat of Soviet bombers armed with cruise missiles.

Problem With Fuse

In addition to improving the technology of the earlier version of the Phoenix, the Pentagon decided to design a new Phoenix because of concerns that the original missile, which had been sold to Iran, had fallen into Soviet hands after the overthrow of the shah in 1979, according to a spokesman for the Naval Air Systems Command.

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Between 250 and 300 of the latest version of the Phoenix--virtually all that had been produced since the 1980 contract year--required repairs to the detection unit, which was supplied by Motorola Corp., Stewart said.

Soon after that problem was resolved, Navy tests on its newest batch of 108 Phoenix missiles discovered yet another major flaw, this one in the fuse that ignites the rocket motor. The fuse, manufactured by California-based Micronics Corp., showed a tendency to become badly corroded by flames, potentially damaging the missile, according to Stewart.

Those flaws only compounded Hughes’ production problems as it attempted to correct faults in missiles built before its 1984 shutdown while continuing to manufacture new missiles.

Hughes was dealt an additional blow when Navy and Air Force inspectors conducted the examination of the missile in June and found defects, many of which it said Hughes’ internal inspectors were overlooking.

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Made Improvements

“The Phoenix program is currently assessed as being marginally satisfactory,” according to a report written in June by John F. Skiffington, chief of the Air Force Quality Assurance Division.

The Navy’s report stated that Hughes had made significant improvements in its production process since 1984 but noted that “a concerted effort is required to further eliminate soldering . . . defects and to reduce both solder and assembly inspection oversights.”

In a written response to Air Force officials who helped the Navy conduct the Phoenix evaluation, William J. Polon, Hughes vice president for product operations, said: “Hughes agrees that some specific findings identified in the Phoenix tear down require closer attention to in-process controls, but there is no indication of degraded reliability or that the missiles being furnished to the fleet will not perform as required.”

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Navy officials also said they have been frustrated by Hughes’ slow production rates.

“Hughes has been continually behind in its deliveries,” Stewart said.

A Hughes spokeswoman blamed those production problems partially on extensive retraining programs required to correct problems cited in the Pentagon’s 1984 inspection.

$200 Million Spent

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She also said the company has spent $200 million in new equipment and facilities at its Tucson plant to improve production since the assembly lines were shut down.

Hughes also noted that problems in the detection and motor ignition devices were found in units supplied to Hughes through the government.

The manufacturers of those units, Motorola and Micronics Corp., said flaws in those products are being corrected.


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