The Navy has known for more than 20 months that its new Super Hornet fighter jet has a vexing problem with its wing, but did not notify Pentagon decision-makers until after they made a commitment last spring to start buying the plane.
A Navy official said the scope of the potentially major problem was not apparent in March when the Pentagon agreed to buy an initial dozen of the $70 million plane -- a decision widely seen as giving the Super Hornet an advantage over other costly jet programs jockeying for money from Congress.
Several defense experts, though, said the lack of notice is an example of the pressure programs face not to admit flaws when their future is in question.
The wing flaw causes the plane to suddenly dip to one side during a combat maneuver, forcing the pilot to break off from his target. A Navy official suggested last month in a memo that the problem could require a complete redesign of the wing, a costly step that could threaten the very program.
Now testers at the Patuxent River Naval Air Station and with prime contractor Boeing Co. say they are closing in on a far less drastic solution, involving changes to the leading edge of the wing.
"We're to the point where we think we're there, in that we've seen several promising configurations. But until we can get it to consistently be solved, it won't be done," said Capt. Jeff Wieringa, the deputy program manager.
The problem was first noted in March 1996 on only the seventh test flight of the F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet, Wieringa said. At that time, the plane was undergoing a limited range of maneuvers, or flight envelope.
"It's taken us through the early part of this year to get the envelope opened enough to fully characterize the problem," Wieringa said. Program officials at first thought the problem could be corrected by simply adjusting the computer software that controls wing flaps, according to Navy documents leaked to the media last week.
And when a Defense Acquisition Board met on March 14, 1997, to consider taking the program from development to initial production, the wing problem was not brought up because it was just one of some 400 "challenges" that had to be addressed, Wieringa said.
"At that point we were carrying it as medium risk. There were other things higher at the time," he said -- such as a publicized problem with engine cracks that has since been overcome.
Paul Kaminski, then the under secretary of defense for acquisitions, signed a memo on March 26 authorizing the Navy to purchase the first 12 Super Hornets and to begin the process of acquiring 50 more.
That was an important milestone, experts say, because programs are difficult to cancel once they enter production.
Kaminski -- who has since stepped down from the Pentagon post -- said last week that he "knew nothing about this problem at that time." Asked whether he should have been told, Kaminski said "not necessarily. I think it was the judgment of the [contractor-military] team at that point that it was not the degree of problem worth raising."
Navy documents make clear that officials did know at least a month before Kaminski signed the order that fixing the problem was going to require modifications to the wing, and not just software changes.
Lawrence Korb, an assistant defense secretary during the Reagan administration, said that such a problem should have been discussed. He added, though, that its omission was not surprising.
"There was no incentive for them to say how bad it was This is squarely in keeping with tradition, I'm sad to say," said Korb, now a fellow with the Brookings Institution.
He cited the B-1 bomber, the C-5 transport plane and the cancelled A-12 attack jet as examples of programs that got glowing reports during development and then turned out to have significant cost or equipment problems.
"The whole process, from start to finish, makes it hard to be completely honest," Korb said.
Last spring, he pointed out, the Super Hornet also faced the intense scrutiny of the Quadrennial Defense Review. Even without disclosure of the wing problem, that military planning study recommended reducing the purchase from 1,000 Super Hornets to between 785 and 550.
Congress, too, has been sharpening its rhetoric about how the Pentagon can afford the Super Hornet, the Air Force F-22 fighter plane and the multiservice Joint Strike Fighter at the same time.
Under those circumstances, "the goal of any large program should be to keep a low profile," said Brett Lambert, an analyst with the DFI International defense consulting firm.
Lambert said he doubted there was any "intent to deceive" in the Navy's failure to reveal the wing problem earlier. Instead, the situation demonstrates that a program touted for its openness "should have had more transparency," he said.
Now the late-breaking revelation will provide fodder for political ambush next year, he said.
Sen. Russell D. Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat who has been an active critic of the Super Hornet, is already on alert. He released a statement Thursday saying he was "troubled by recent reports" about the plane and promising to "press the Pentagon to provide the Congress with a more affordable and realistic tactical fighter acquisition strategy."
Until now, the Super Hornet's main liability has been the question of whether it was enough of an improvement over the old models of the F-18 -- the Navy's primary attack plane -- to justify its cost. Otherwise, the program continues to be on track, on budget and under weight.
The Navy has now withheld about $1 billion intended for Boeing to begin building the next batch of 20 planes until the wing problem is resolved. Wieringa, the deputy program manager, said the contractor is already paid up through February, so the action does not amount to a delay.
He added that while the cost of repairs remains unclear, the contractor believes it has enough reserves to cover the expense.
Engineers have determined that the dip pilots experience when making certain turns at just under the speed of sound is related to a "snag" or notch along the leading edge of the wing.
The notch was added to help the plane slow for landing on aircraft carriers, but apparently disrupts aerodynamics under certain circumstances. The problem has been frustrating, Wieringa said, because it rolls some planes to the right, others to the left and sometimes disappears entirely.
After extensive testing at Patuxent River, on computers and in wind tunnels, officials think they can control the problem through several means: a slight change in the shape of the leading edge, small nodules along the edge and raised strips atop the wing to disrupt air flow, and changes in the computer program that controls the wing flap.
While those changes would seem to increase drag and therefore reduce the plane's range and speed, Wieringa said that some of them improve performance.
The Navy hopes to certify the changes by later this month. Even if they work perfectly, though, some critics will not be mollified.
Franklin C. "Chuck" Spinney, an aircraft analyst for the Defense Department, said he finds it deplorable that taxpayers are buying planes before such a fundamental problem is put to rest.
"We're not talking about incompetence as far as aeronautical pTC engineering here; this kind of thing happens all the time," Spinney said. "What is terrible about this thing is that it's in production."
Pub Date: 12/07/97