America's Costliest Fleet of Lemons

By Novak, C. James | The Humanist, March-April 1994 | Go to article overview

America's Costliest Fleet of Lemons

Novak, C. James, The Humanist

Senator John Glenn (Democrat-Ohio) is probing the truth about America's costliest fleet of lemons. Reacting to a Congressional Budget Office report that suggested the Air Force lied about the capabilities of the B-1B bomber, Senator Glenn is finally acknowledging what many in the bomber community have known for years: the B-1B is a dud that has added far more to the bottom lines of defense contractors than it will ever add to the bottom line of national defense. It is the type of bounteous expenditure that was forgiven at the height of the Cold War but that now begs to become infrastructure, child immunizations, job training, or any of a thousand other points of blight in desperate need of funding. It is precisely the type of excess defense spending that millions of Americans hope their military's new commander-in-chief will have the backbone to eliminate.

Congress has frequently paid to tape the broken bomber. In the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 1993, the Senate's Committee on Armed Services, in considering funding options for bomber modernization, noted that the committee "could accept the familiar Air Force assurances that the B-1B ECM (electronic countermeasures) problems are |solved,' and that all that is required is for the Congress to provide the necessary funds. The committee, and the Congress, have twice before gone down that road, to our regret."

Black Boxes and Greenbacks

The BIB bomber has never worked as it was intended. Its electronic countermeasures package, dubbed the ALQ-161, is the collection of secret, super-high-tech equipment designed--supposedly--to recognize and counter enemy air defense threats and permit the aircraft to penetrate defended targets. In its initial configuration, it was to have had the capability to recognize and respond to 50 distinct air defense threats. Despite contractor promises and expensive bench-tests, the system proved unreliable when placed on the B-1B airframe. For in, stance, antenna locations resulted in jammers defeating each other rather than the intended threat signal. Moreover, when the system detected more threats than it could process or a threat that it did not anticipate, the whole defensive system could shut down at a time when it was needed most.

The Air Force modified the system, but the modification (ALQ-161A) again failed to function reliably. The ECM system was so poor that, during Strategic Air Command's 1989 bombing competition, some BIB defensive systems operators were reduced to simulating electronic countermeasures by calling in over the radio "JAM, JAM, JAM" when they detected competition threat signals--signals that should have been automatically countered by the B-1B's sophisticated ECM systems. Not surprisingly, a B-52 bomber unit walked away with the electronic countermeasures trophy.

The Air Force then abandoned the 50-threat capability for a system that would cover only the top 11 air defense threats based on a nuclear penetration mission. Test results of the new configuration, called CORE ECM, were published in March 1992 and showed that the CORE system failed three of the five logistics criteria established by the Air Force before testing was begun and that it "did not achieve, nor was it designed to achieve, an effective and suitable program when compared to all B-1B defensive avionics system (DAS) requirements."

Translation: $4 billion dollars later, the B-1B's electronic countermeasures package still does not work as advertised. According to the November 1992 Journal of Electronic Defense: "The B-1B ECM upgrade has created a veritable feeding frenzy within the EW (electronic warfare) industry community. Many industry insiders view the program as the last major EW con, tract for some time" Lockheed, ITT, Raytheon, and a host of other defense contractors relish the chance to land huge con, tracts "fixing" the most marginal of bombing platforms.

The B-1B has other problems besides unreliable ECM. …

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