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Air Force reveals problems with MX missile contractors

By DANIEL F. GILMORE

WASHINGTON -- The Air Force said Friday it is withholding $89.4 million in payments to Northrop Corp. because of faulty guidance systems for the MX missile and will withhold $1 million a month in payments to Morton Thiokol Inc.

Despite the problems with the contractors, a spokesmansaid, 22 MX ICBM Peacekeeper missiles are 'in the hole' in silos at Warren Air Force Base, Wyo., ready to go and another 14 can be fully operational in a short period in any emergency.

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Air Force Brig. Gen. Charles May, deputy director of advanced programs, told a Pentagon news conference that nothing is wrong with the overall MX missile's performance.

But, he said, there were problems with quality control and late deliveries of rocket motors made by Morton Thiokol and defective Inertial Measurement Units (IMU) manufactured by Northrop discovered before installation in the first stage of the four-stage rocket.

As result, $89.4 million in contractual payments have been withheld from Northrop since March and, starting with the next billing, $1 million will be withheld monthly in progress payments for Morton Thikol until IMU production and quality control are back on schedule.

A division of Morton Thiokol built the rocket booster for the space shuttle Challenger, which exploded shortly after launch in January 1986 killing its seven-member crew.

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'The Peacekeeper missile system has been superb in all 17 flight tests to date,' May said. 'We have achieved accuracy and reliability statistics far better than we expected when we started out to design a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).

'The stage l rocket motor produced by Morton Thiokol has been one of the most reliable components throughout our flight test program, in most cases exceeding design specificationa and requirements,' he said.

But problems have been uncovered including unsatisfactory worker supervision and discipline and poor management attention to quality control leading to behind schedule deliveries of the rocket motors.

'No units destined for deployed missiles have been returned,' May said, with defects discovered by Air Force inspectors at the plant or on delivery before installation. Each rocket motor costs $4.1 million.

The IMU, part of the MX guidance system, is turned on as soon as the missile is installed in its silo in a ready mode and, like a light bulb, has a finite life. Twenty-two missiles at Warren are ready to go but l4 have not had their IMU units installed and turned on. There are enough units on hand to be quickly installed in a emergency but no spares until new units arrive.

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Each IMU costs $5 million.

Congress authorized the Air Force to buy 66 MX missiles, 50 for operational deployment and 16 for testing.

Deployment and operational status for the first 10 was accomplished on schedule in December 1986.

The four-stage, 71-foot high rocket weighs 195,000 pounds. Each MX can propel 10 nuclear warheads to separate targets half way around the world.

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