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Northrop official defends MX missile guidance system

By ELIOT BRENNER

WASHINGTON -- A top Northrop Corp. official disputed charges Thursday the MX missile guidance system is undependable and inaccurate, calling the allegations, not the missile, 'off the target.'

David Ferguson, a Northrop vice president, testified before two subcommittees of the House Armed Services Committee examining allegations of guidance system and contracting irregularities at Northrop, where deliveries fell so far behind the Air Force suspended progress payments.

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'Last week this committee heard allegations that the Peacekeeper, once launched, would be as likely to hit Washington as Moscow, or, alternatively, would fail catastrophically.

'To respond as gently as I know how -- that's unadulterated nonsense. The allegations are off the target, not the Peacekeeper,' Ferguson said.

While Ferguson testified in Washington, a federal grand jury in Los Angeles investigating Northrop received dozens of boxes of parts the firm ordered for its guidance system.

The guidance system has more than 19,000 parts packed into a sphere about the size of a basketball and is designed to get the MX's 10 warheads to within about 100 yards of a target after a flight of thousands of miles.

It has performed excellently in 17 test firings of the missile, but a former engineer said last week soldering is inadequate and improper bonding of gold circuitry creates the chance it could fail under the stress of launch acceleration, threatening missile accuracy.

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Ferguson said Northrop investigated the issue and found the soldering process proper. He said standards for the gold circuitry, approved by the Air Force, have been established and they can withstand 10 times the stress present during launch.

Seven of 21 deployed MX missiles are not on alert because of problems in delivering guidance units. Ferguson said Northrop has given the Air Force a revised delivery schedule and should be caught up by February.

Current and former Northrop engineers told the House panels last week they set up dummy companies to buy parts for test equipment outside of Northrop's normal purchasing channels.

The engineers testified they were able to get parts for test equipment in a matter of days using dummy corporations to buy them. It took them several weeks to get parts through Northrop's internal supply system.

Ferguson said the company believes the practice was legal and not against Pentagon regulations.

He conceded the firm has problems with management, material and inventory control and other contracting errors, but said it is taking steps to solve those problems.

He also acknowledged test data on several early guidance units was falsified but those responsible were punished. In the incident, a Northrop employee certified that parts tested by a supplier had been tested again by Northrop when they had not been given a second examination. The problem was uncovered by Northrop and the Air Force.

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