The Real Cost of Cheating : Northrop's fine may not begin to measure up to the actual damage

The Marine Corps is in a bind. It desperately needs a key replacement part to keep a portion of its AV-8B Harrier jet fleet flying. But the part, a sensor system that helps stabilize the Harrier in flight, is made only by Northrop Corp. In February, Northrop pleaded guilty to criminal charges that it faked tests on the sensor. That resulted in a record fine and a suspension of government contracts with the division that falsified test data. Now the Marines have no choice but to ask for a waiver of that suspension so they can buy $300,000 in replacement sensors from the company that faked them out in the first place.

Chairman John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) of the House Government Operations Committee rightly calls the situation an outrage. Four Harriers have already been grounded because their rate-sensor assemblies lasted less than two-thirds the number of hours they were supposed to. Another 18 planes could be grounded within a year. About 60 Harriers are now in Saudi Arabia. Their mission is to provide close air support to ground troops. Whether those particular planes have encountered any problems isn't known. But the potential is there. Lives are in danger and the reliability of an important weapon is in question.

A former Northrop engineer who is serving a prison term for his part in the fakery says that he and his supervisor falsified results of the tests rather than buy the expensive equipment needed to carry them out properly. Because of that, aircraft costing $22 million each have been put at risk, and the lives of the pilots and ground troops the planes are supposed to support have been placed in jeopardy.

Faking tests on military equipment--we are talking here ultimately about nothing less than imperiling the nation's security--is on the same moral level as adulterating food supplies or cheating on the purity of prescription drugs. Northrop was fined $17 million for its deception. It got off cheaply compared with the price that those who depend on the Harrier may one day have to pay.

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