Will high cost ground US 'Hornet'?

The F-18 Hornet was designed to strike dread in an enemy. But the nation's latest fighter aircraft, named for the strong-flying insect with a powerful sting, so far is not cutting the sort of aggressive dash its designers hoped it would.

Indeed, although $3 billion already has been spent developing the single-seat , carrier-based fighter, it may be scrapped.

Built by McDonnell Douglas and Northrop corporations to replace aging F-4 Phantoms and A-7 Corsairs, and to supplement the new F-14 Tomcats in a fleet defense role, the aircraft is plagued with poor performance and galloping costs.According to Rep. Bruce F. VEnto (D) of Minnesota, a leading critic of the F-18 (which as the Northrop YF-17 lost out to the General Dynamics YF-16 in the competition to become the Air Force's lightweight fighter), the machine suffers from inadequte range, poor acceleration, and excessive weight.

Congressman Vento, who has branded the aircraft "a needless and fruitless extravagance" also claims that it is afflicted with collapsing landing gear, recurrent bulkhead fatigue, and problems with wing flexibility and the rate at which it rolls. He has called for public hearings into the aircraft's woes.

The Minnesota Democrat maintains that costs of the F-18 program have risen from $21.9 billion in March 1979 to $32.9 billion today -- an increase of $11 billion. When the F-18 program was launched in 1975, 811 aircraft were to be built for the Navy and Marine Corps at a cost of $15.8 million each. Today, with an order from the Canadian Air Force, 1,377 are due to be constructed -- at an estimated cost of $21.2 million. In a recent note to US Secretary of Defense Harold Brown, Navy Secretary Edward Hidalgo declared that the escalating costs of the F-18 "have raised serious questions in my mind."

A Navy spokesman, conceding that "technical problems have been identified with the aircraft," observes that "the primary emphasis" at the moment is to try to improve its acceleration and range characteristics along with "certain structural components that have been identified as problem areas."

Defense analysts here point out that the F-18, armed with Sidewinder air-to-air missiles, only has a range of 400 nautical miles -- a considerable contrast with the A-7 Corsair it is replacing and which boasts a 700-nautical mile radius -- even when carrying 4,000 pounds of ordinance.

The Navy says that modifications have been incorporated into the Hornet's wing, "significantly" improving performance and, in cooperation with McDonnell Douglas, it is "thoroughly" reviewing all highly stressed areas of the aircraft.

"Some structural modifications have been approved and will be incorporated into production aircraft," says a spokesman, pointing out that "without testing, these structural problems would not have been identified at this early stage of development, which could have resulted in an expensive retrofit program."

The Navy claims that in sea trials aboard the carrier USS America, the Hornet operated for four days with 100 percent availability, constituting the "most successful and earliest sea trials for any Navy aircraft in recent times." In general, the Navy claims to be satisfied with the performance of the F- 18. "All indications point toward the . . . Hornet being three times better than current fleet aircraft," the spokesman declares.

The Navy and McDonnell Douglas blame Hornet cost increases on inflation in the cost of materials and labor, and higher overheads; slower development due to the F-18's advanced technology, and more exhaustive testing of the aircraft. "In any cost estimate of a program, the unknowns of inflation are drastic, and the longer the program, the more undefined," says the Navy spokesman.

The US General Accounting Office (GAO), which scrutinizes government spending on behalf of Congress, recently pronounced that the F-18s "effectiveness is uncertain until its deficiencies are resolved. Retorts Defense Department spokesman Thomas Ross: "The F-18 has no more than the normal number of problems associated with new aircraft."

The Navy admits that termination of the Hornet "is always at least a theoretical possibility," but adds, "there is no reason to believe that termination of the F-18 will prove to be any more desirable this year than it has in the past."

But the vastly increased cost has alarmed the White House, where officials say that President Carter may have to face the decision to scrap the F-18 in mid-December when such an option is reviewed by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB).

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