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Pentagon Fires Back at Critics of Its Programs : Plane, Helicopter and Missile Projects Defended

Times Staff Writer

The Pentagon defended itself Thursday against a spate of recent attacks on some of its most sophisticated equipment, including the Air Force’s newest transport plane, the Army’s hottest attack helicopter and the Navy’s Trident submarine missile.

Outgoing Pentagon spokesman Dan Howard, in a wide-ranging briefing for reporters, sought to answer congressional critics who have blasted the multibillion-dollar projects on such grounds as performance, price and reliability.

In particular, Howard said the Navy still expects to deploy its D-5 Trident missile on schedule next December, even though one of the missiles exploded Tuesday four seconds into a test firing. The test was the 20th for the new missile; most of the previous tests have been judged successful.

Similarly, Howard rejected congressional criticism of Air Force spending on so-called crash-repair kits for its C-5 transport plane. The Air Force is in the process of obtaining 147 of the kits, which consist of replacement parts and other material needed to salvage and return the planes to active duty after some accidents.

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The investigations subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Wednesday blasted the Air Force for negotiating with Lockheed Aeronautical Systems Co. in Marietta, Ga., to build the kits, which lawmakers charged are useless and overpriced.

Rejects Charges

“This order involves virtually every sorry facet of defense contracting,” Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), the chairman of the panel, charged.

Howard rejected the charges. “It’s very clear to me that the system is working the way it’s supposed to,” he declared, saying that the Air Force sent the maker of the kits--each of which includes 6,600 items--back to review the costs of almost half the items.

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On an individual basis, the price of the items can be “hair raising,” Howard conceded, in part because they are being ordered in relatively small quantities and some require expensive hand machining.

The high per-unit costs are more than balanced by the savings to the government when damaged planes can be returned to service, he said. C-5s cost about $139 million each, and the availability of special spare parts has enabled the Air Force to salvage three of eight C-5 aircraft involved in crashes, he said.

Howard also noted that the Air Force has not concluded any final contract with Lockheed, and has lowered the cost of many of the items during months of negotiations, including washers and grommets for which Lockheed originally proposed to charge $230 and $81, respectively.

At the same time, Howard acknowledged that the Air Force Office of Special Investigations has initiated an inquiry into the activities of a retired Air Force procurement officer who helped negotiate the Lockheed deal and went to work for the contractor seven months later.

Turning to the Army’s newest attack helicopter, the AH-64 Apache, Howard sought to put to rest questions about its reliability in the wake of reports that the chopper has suffered massive breakdowns on recent maneuvers.

In an Army gunnery exercise, so many of the $12.7-million Apaches broke down that one commander told his superiors that “if we went to war tomorrow,” he would rather fly 1960s-vintage AH-1 Cobra helicopters.

All 12 of the Apaches participating in the exercise were grounded for repairs within five days, Col. R. Dennis Kerr, commander of the 82nd Aviation Brigade, wrote in a memorandum obtained by Dingell’s subcommittee.

Howard acknowledged that the Army’s fleet of 450 Apaches has fallen short of its reliability goals in recent months, maintaining combat-readiness 71.4% of the time. The Army’s target is to have the Apache ready to fly 75% of the time.

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But Howard said Apache reliability approaches that of the Cobra, a craft that the Army considers more “mature,” because it has been in service since 1968. In the past nine months, Cobras have performed only slightly better than Apaches, remaining combat-ready 73.7% of the time.

Criticism also has been leveled at the performance of the night-vision goggles used by U.S. helicopter pilots. But Howard asserted that flying U.S. helicopters at night using night-vision goggles is “better statistically . . . than flying in daytime.”

Pentagon investigations of night-time chopper crashes indicate that the night-vision goggles, widely blamed for crashes, have not been either the sole or primary cause of such accidents, Howard said.

Finally, Howard defended the Trident D-5 missile, one of which self-destructed in the first test-launch from a submarine. Navy investigators have concluded that the missile performed well in the principal objective of Tuesday’s test--demonstrating that the missile could launch from a submerged submarine, Howard said.

But the missile failed to respond to a signal to right itself after it cleared the airspace above the submarine. Investigators do not know whether the failure was caused by an interruption of the electronic signal or a mechanical flaw, Howard said.

“We still expect that the Trident 2 (or D-5) will be fully operational aboard the USS Tennessee in December,” he said.


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