WASHINGTON -- The Army wants to replenish an already enormous supply of tank-killing weapons by buying more than 2,100 laser-guided Hellfire missiles now instead of next year, when a new improved version starts coming off the production line.
The decision has baffled investigators at the General Accounting Office, who were told by senior Defense Department and Army officials in May that the Army would wait for the newer version of the missile. Congress had just given the Army $86.6 million to replace the Hellfire missiles used in the Persian Gulf war.
"What is so urgent that you've got to run out and buy some more?" Richard Davis, the GAO's top Army expert, said last week. "Do you need to buy more of a missile that's not going to do the job as well?"
Mr. Davis said his agency's attempt to get complete answers have been met by "shrugs of the shoulder." The Army also declined requests by The Sun last week for an explanation, saying it was working on a formal response to the GAO.
But congressional aides said a combination of pork-barrel politics and a desire to bolster the U.S. defense industrial base has driven Congress to require the purchase of more Hellfire missiles than the Army has requested in recent years. The Army's current initiative, which would keep an older production line busy for many more months, appears to be a response to past pressure, they said.
The sole supplier of the current Hellfire "F-model" is the tactical systems division of Rockwell International Corp., which is based in Duluth, Ga., home state of Sen. Sam Nunn, the influential Democrat who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee. Before the last contract was awarded to Rockwell, congressional records show that the Senate panel authorized the Army to spend more than twice the amount it wanted for Hellfire missiles through 1991.
A spokesman for Mr. Nunn dismissed the idea that the senator has played to parochial interests. "We just don't operate this way," Scott Williams said Friday.
The Army acknowledges that initial testing shows that the improved Hellfire can perform better than the F-model, which is less effective against enemy countermeasures and targets obscured by smoke or bad weather.
The Army also estimates, based on existing contracts, that its stockpile of Hellfire missiles will exceed 32,000 by February, 1993 -- more than ten times the number fired against Iraq targets.
When a Hellfire program official recently notified the GAO of the latest Army plans, the watchdog agency sent Defense Secretary Dick Cheney an unsolicited six-page letter Sept. 6 criticizing the decision. The letter urged Mr. Cheney to order the Army to spend its gulf war money on improved Hellfire missiles "unless the Army clearly demonstrates a legitimate need to add more than 2,000 less-capable missiles to its inventory."
Rockwell spokesman Vincent Vinci said the firm could receive the additional Army orders as soon as this week.
The Hellfire missile, the main armament of the Army's AH-64 Apache attack helicopter, has been produced since 1982 and fielded since 1985.
Designed to destroy tanks and bunkers from as far away as four miles, the missile finds its target by homing in on a laser beam projected by a ground observer, another aircraft or the Apache itself.
The first shots of the gulf war were fired by Apache helicopters using eight Hellfires to attack two radar sites in far western Iraq. The sites, which served as Baghdad's only early warning system for incoming air strikes, were hit simultaneously, opening the air corridor for F-117 Stealth fighters and other aircraft headed deep into Iraq.
Hellfire missiles also figured in the death of two Americans whose Bradley fighting vehicle was hit during a night attack by an Apache helicopter Feb. 17. Six other soldiers were wounded and a ground surveillance vehicle was damaged in the friendly-fire incident.
The Army used roughly 3,000 Hellfire missiles in the gulf war and another 1,000 in live-fire training during the military buildup, industry officials said. The gulf war appropriation, passed in March, allows the purchase of 3,150 Hellfires, but the Army now wants to buy 2,174 F-models for $62.8 million and 335 newer missiles with the remaining funds.
The F-model has two non-nuclear warheads to enable it to defeat the reactive armor now common on modern Soviet battle tanks. When the Hellfire strikes its target, a small warhead sets off the explosive charges built inside the reactive armor to enable the missile's main warhead to penetrate the tank with a high-velocity jet of molten metal.
The improved missile, known as the "optimized" Hellfire, features a deadlier main warhead in anticipation of Soviet armor improvements and new electronics to boost the missile's
immunity to enemy countermeasures. The Martin-Marietta Missiles Group, of Orlando, Fla., the sole developer of this missile, conducted the first successful guided flight test Wednesday and plans to begin production next June.
In its letter to Mr. Cheney, the GAO said an Army official recently told the agency of the military's desire "to more quickly replace the missiles expended during Operation Desert Storm." The GAO said the official did not believe the optimized Hellfire would enter the inventory until mid-1993 at the earliest, with a large quantity not likely to be available until at least mid-1994.
"But he did not explain what factors had changed [since May] . . . to justify the need to buy the less-capable interim missiles," the agency said.
Until February 1990, when the Army awarded Rockwell a sole-source contract for Hellfire F-models, both Rockwell and Martin-Marietta were guaranteed a share of Army business, although they competed annually for the largest production order of missiles. The lowest bidder typically won 65 percent of the orders in a given year, with the rest going to the other firm.
In recent years, Senator Nunn, his committee and members of the House and Senate defense appropriations subcommittees have all backed bigger Hellfire purchases by arguing that it encouraged competition, greater economies of scale and lower unit costs. At the same time, Senator Nunn's committee has criticized other Army procurement plans, including last year's request for Patriot missiles, for being excessive in a era of military cutbacks and restructuring.
RTC "There's always a political interest in programs because you're talking jobs. You'll never get away from it," said a senior House Armed Services Committee aide. "But the other side is that you have a good weapon system in the Hellfire. You may just have a difference over the urgency, the rate at which you equip your forces."