US Congress again attacks stand-off weapon's reliability following technical problems

Glitches are again threatening the future of the stealthy Lockheed Martin AGM-158 Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM), prompting a new showdown with Congress and a renewed US Air Force focus on manufacturing improvements.

USAF officials earlier this year cleared the low-cost weapon to enter full-rate production, after overruling concerns raised in an annual report by the US Defense Department's office of test and evaluation by asserting that a series of technical problems that had reduced the missile's reliability had been fully resolved.

A new string of unrelated technical glitches has surfaced during the three most recent tests. On 8 June, the mission planning system for a Northrop Grumman B-2A stealth bomber malfunctioned, aborting a JASSM live fire test before it could begin. But missile glitches are blamed for two subsequent test failures, says Gerry Freisthler, the air force's top strike weapons buyer.

A Lockheed Martin F-16 test failure on 29 June is blamed on a faulty actuator that prevented power switching from battery to engine, causing it to crash short of the target. Another B-2 test on 27 July began smoothly, but the missile went out of control just 15s before starting its arming sequence, says Freisthler. The cause is still being determined. "Something happened in the terminal manoeuvre," he says. "There is nothing now to indicate that it's a duplication of a previous error."

Meanwhile, Congressional appropriators who nearly scrapped the programme last year have again attacked the missile's reliability and cut its budget by $8 million, removing about 40 missiles from next year's planned purchase. The lawmakers "expect that improvements will be made to increase the reliability of the baseline missile. Failure to do so will cause the conferees to reconsider their support for this programme and the extended-range version," says a conference report on the fiscal year 2005 defence appropriations bill.

A further dispute centres on the stated reliability of the JASSM. The appropriators' report claims the programme has a 53% success rate, while the air force insists it is 73.5%. Neither figure meets the standard of programmes such as Boeing's Joint Direct Attack Munition and Raytheon's Joint Standoff Weapon, cited in the Congressional report, but air force officials counter that JASSM's complexity as a stealthy cruise missile does not offer a fair comparison.

Nonetheless, Freisthler is promising a "long hard look at the reliability of the system", starting with a suppliers' conference scheduled this week. "I'm going to talk a lot about quality," he adds.


Source: Flight International