Navy combat systems unsafe?

By Jon Dougherty

The Navy’s chief weapons evaluator says a number of the service’s combat systems are being deployed before they have demonstrated an “acceptable” level of performance.

“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 during adequate operation test and evaluation,” said Thomas P. Christie, in an Aug. 1 letter to Navy Secretary Gordon England.

Navy Secretary Gordon England

“I strongly recommend that you adopt a policy of deploying new combat systems after they have demonstrated appropriate performance during adequate operational test and evaluation,” he wrote.

Specifically, Christie charged that the Navy’s Joint Standoff Weapon (JSOW), three F/A-18E/F systems, the BQQ-10 submarine sonar system, the acoustic rapid COTS insertion (ARCI), and one classified system – “the advanced targeting and designating forward looking infrared system (ATFLIR)” – may be defective.

The F/A-18E/F “Super Hornet,” manufactured by Boeing Inc., is the Navy’s most advanced fighter aircraft. The first squadron has been assigned to the carrier U.S.S Abraham Lincoln on a six-month mission to the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea, just as the U.S. is gearing up for war against Iraq.

A failure of the plane’s systems “could seriously affect a pilot’s ability to locate and strike enemy targets,” said Eric Miller, a defense investigator for the non-partisan watchdog group Project On Government Oversight, which discovered the memo.

“At a time when it is particularly important that our pilots be able to depend on their weapons, the Navy hasn’t proven that these systems work,” said Miller.

England’s office had no comment on the memo, but one employee confirmed it was also sent to the office of the assistant secretary for research, development and acquisition, John J. Young.

One of the three F-18 E and F model systems that concerned Christie included an unnamed classified system that flunked its operational test, but was still quickly deployed after Navy officials essentially dumbed-down testing requirements, according to a POGO analysis.

The government accountability group said the Joint Standoff Weapon systems were deployed aboard aircraft on another carrier, the U.S.S. John C. Stennis, without first demonstrating satisfactory performance.

The JSOW is replacing five types of the older air-to-ground “smart-bombs” currently in the naval inventory, said POGO, and it is “planned for use in not only the F-18, but also the F-16, B-52 and B-2 aircraft.”

Meanwhile, the BQQ-10 sonar, an upgrade to existing submarine sonar technology, is designed for use on the Navy’s new Virginia-class attack submarine of the future, but is being used on board some of today’s attack submarines.

Threats to U.S. Navy submarines in the Persian Gulf theater are virtually non-existent, but some nations – Iran, especially – are attempting to develop a better submarine capability.

Boeing delivered its 100th Super Hornet model to the Navy June 14. In June 2000, Boeing and the Navy signed a multiyear procurement contract for 222 aircraft through 2004. Officials are currently discussing a second multi-year contract with the Navy as well, Boeing said.

The aircraft company is the world’s largest manufacturer of satellites, commercial jetliners and military aircraft. Total company revenues for 2001 were $58 billion.