New Navy Fighters Flunk Weapons Tests

by JEFFREY ST. CLAIR

This will provide scant comfort to Iraqis, who are even now refamiliarizing themselves with the quickest route to the nearest Baghdad bomb shelter, but a recently leaked memo from Pentagon’s top weapons inspector warns that the Navy is deploying for battle “an increasing number” of combat systems that may be seriously flawed.

Thomas Christie, director of operational testing and evaluation for the Department of Defense, sent his memo to Gordon England, the Secretary of the Navy last month. The memo was leaked to the Project on Government Oversight, a Washington-based Pentagon watchdog group.

“I am concerned about an apparent trend by the Navy to deploy an increasing number of combat systems into harm’s way that have not demonstrated acceptable performance,” wrote Christie. “I strongly recommend that you adopt a policy of deploying new deploying new combat systems after they have demonstrated appropriate performance during adequate operational test and evaluation.”

Christie cited the weapons systems used by the Navy’s F/A-18E/F Super Hornet fighter as being the most suspect. The Super Hornets are the Navy’s top fighter aircraft in the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea. In an all-out war against Iraq, the Super Hornets, based on the US aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln, are expected to lead the Navy’s air campaign against Iraq.

When the big new weapons systems fail their testing, instead of asking the contractors to fix the problem, the Navy, ever anxious to have the newest and latest hardware, simply “dumbs down” the test. It’s like lowering entrance examines for high-yield explosives. Christie’s memo says this happened with two classified weapons systems for the Super Hornet, one is unnamed and the other is a shared reconnaissance model called SHARP, which is supposed to allow pilots to see images up to 50 miles away at altitudes of 50,000 feet in all kinds of weather.

Christie also warned that the Super Hornet’s infrared missile targeting system, known as ATFLIR, failed to measure up to expectations during a round of operational testing in April. The AFLIR uses a small visible light camera to detect, classify and track both air-to-air and air-to-surface targets. In the April test of laser-guided bombs, however, the AFLIR system only worked two out of seven times.

An even more widespread problem is likely to be encountered if the Navy proceeds with plans to install the Joint Standoff Weapon (JSOW) on the USS Stennis aircraft carrier. The JSOW is a guidance system for the Navy’s new generation of “smart bombs” and is slated to be used not only on the Super Hornet, but also on the F-16 fighter and B-52 and B-2 bombers. Christie says that the JSOW has yet to demonstrate “acceptable performance” in operational testing.

All of this brings back memories of the first Gulf War, when the Pentagon hailed its new technological prowess, featuring its integrated arsenal of AWACS, Stealth fighters and bombers and smart bombs. Well, it turned out that these new systems didn’t turn out to be very efficient or very smart. The stealth systems didn’t work in cold weather or heavy winds. The smart bombs hardly lived up to their advanced billing or the daily Pentagon videos of missiles dropping into Iraqi smokestacks. In fact, post-war bombing assessments showed that the smart bombs hit their targets only about 30 percent of the time. Needless to say, we didn’t get to watch Schwartzkoft explain with a telestrator what went wrong when the smart bombs missed their targets and hit neighborhoods filled with Iraqi women and children.

In the end, even the Pentagon figured out that the war couldn’t be fought with the smart bombs and resorted to old-fashioned carpet bombing with B-52s. More than 90 percent of the bombs dropped on Iraq were conventional ordinance. Similarly, the sleek and expensive new fighter planes gave way to old war-horses, such as the A-10, which most independent defense analysts credit with destroying the entrenched Iraqi tank divisions in Kuwait and southern Iraq.

The mad rush to get these unproven systems operational before the bombing of Baghdad gets under way has a simple explanation. The Pentagon always wants new and more expensive war toys and its contractors make sure that congress appropriates the money to make that desire a reality. The Super Hornet is built by Boeing. The Navy has already ordered 222 of these fighters, at a price tag of $57 million per copy. And it wants to buy 300 more. There’s 29 billion reasons to move as quickly as possible-test scores be damned.

The Pentagon, of course, probably views Iraq as the ultimate testing ground for its menu of new bombing systems. Given Iraq’s decimated air-defense system and inept air force, there’s little risk of US planes being taken down through the failure of any of these systems. And, given the tight constrictions on press coverage that have been in place since the first Gulf War, there’s also little chance that the flaws in these multi-billion dollar systems will come to light during the impending war.

But when one of these missiles misses its target and slams into a house or marketplace because of a glitch in the new Boeing war technology, it means that more innocent Iraqi’s will die, unwitting victims of the “operation testing” of a technology which will have only proven its capacity to kill without discrimination.

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