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Northrop, AF Try to Make B-2 Problem Vanish : * Aerospace: A Pentagon spokesman said the Stealth failure doesn’t seem to be a ‘showstopper,’ but he’s not certain it can be remedied.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Defense Department officials said Thursday that Northrop Corp. and the Air Force are looking into technical means to remedy the failure of the B-2 bomber in meeting its required Stealth capabilities.

Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams said the problems are not considered “a showstopper,” but also acknowledged that he could not be certain the problems could be remedied and had no reliable estimate of how much the fixes would cost.

The B-2 failed to meet “desired levels of performance” in its ability to escape detection by radar during recent flight tests at Edwards Air Force Base, Air Force Secretary Donald Rice disclosed Wednesday.

Williams declined to elaborate on the exact problems with the B-2 during a lengthy news conference in Washington Thursday, but he reiterated that the bomber--built by Northrop in Palmdale and Pico Rivera--is the most “survivable” aircraft in the world.

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Williams declined to say whether the B-2 is more “stealthy” than the Lockheed F-117 Stealth fighter--whose performance won praise during the Persian Gulf War--or the Rockwell International B-1 bomber. It has long been asserted that the B-2 is at least 10 times more radar-evasive than the B-1.

The B-2 is supposed to escape detection and tracking by enemy radars through its unusual all-wing shape, plastic skin and special avionics systems. The Air Force wants to buy 75 of the bombers at a total cost of $64.8 billion.

A key industry source says the B-2 likely failed tests of its ability to escape detection by a low frequency radar system--which, ironically, is 1950s-era technology. This has long been the Achilles heel of the B-2 program, experts say, and critics have long questioned how the B-2 would solve the problem posed by such radar.

“If it turns out to be low-frequency radar that is the problem, Congress is going to be furious,” a House staffer said. “People have been saying all along that this would be a problem, and the Air Force insisted that it would not be.”

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Still, the industry source said the entire matter can be fixed with a known alternative--but at an additional cost of several hundred million dollars.

It remains unclear what Northrop’s liability is for the problems. An Air Force spokesman said the company failed to meet a technical specification--in all probability a contractually binding one. Williams said he did not know of any contract payments to the company that have been withheld.

Northrop stock plunged by more than 10% in trading Thursday, losing $2.50 per share to close at $24.375 on the New York Stock Exchange.

Williams said the Air Force is examining several options to improve the B-2’s Stealth performance, but they do not include any major changes to the external shape of the bomber.

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“Are we confident that it can be made to conform to the specifications? I don’t know. I don’t think anybody has a way of knowing that,” Williams said.

On Thursday, Rice gave a briefing on the problems to Rep. Les Aspin (D-Wisc.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, and Rep. Bill Dickinson (R-Ala.), the panel’s ranking Republican member. Aspin, a B-2 opponent, was mum after the meeting. But echoing Williams’ comments, Dickenson--a supporter of the bomber--said he did not hear anything in the briefing that suggested the problem was a “showstopper,” according to an aide.


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