Pentagon tightens quality standards for its contractors

Faced with persistent criticisms about military readiness, quality of equipment, and the very high price of weapons, the Pentagon is emphasizing quality in the performance of defense contractors.

It has refused to pay for or accept conventional missiles that officials charge are tainted by shoddy workmanship. It is working to correct what the Air Force acknowledges to be serious construction flaws that could possibly affect safety at the new space shuttle launch and landing complex at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. It also has adopted a more aggressive attitude toward those who try to defraud the government.

Air Force Undersecretary Edward C. Aldridge Jr. said Thursday that there have been problems with construction of the new shuttle launch facility, from which the orbiter Discovery is scheduled to be launched in October of 1985. And he said that some 14 serious flaws remain to be corrected.

But he strongly emphasized that ''there is no substance to the allegations (made in a recent television report) that the launch pad will blow up when the shuttle is launched.''

He said ''there is no fundamental problem of safety or quality assurance,'' and he stressed that ''we will never compromise personnel safety or mission success to maintain schedule.''

When some 700 of about 8,000 welds in the launch facility were found to be defective, he said, a subcontractor was fired and another hired to make the corrections.

The Air Force, along with the Army and Navy, has also refused delivery of antitank and antiaircraft missiles from the Hughes Aircraft Company. And the Navy has threatened to seek a second source for its AIM-54C Phoenix air-to-air missile (which costs about $1 million each) if Hughes does not correct ''serious deficiencies'' caused by ''poor workmanship.''

Undoubtedly there is real concern over weapons quality among career officers (whose lives could depend on weapon performance), as well as administration civilians at the Pentagon. But it is also true that political heat as well as the work of whistleblowers (some of whom say they still are ignored or harassed by political appointees) has impelled the services to crack down.

This continues a trend begun early in the Reagan administration by Navy Secretary John F. Lehman Jr., who came into office threatening to keelhaul submarine builders if they didn't improve quality and lower costs. There now are more new ships ahead of building schedule and fewer behind than there were when Secretary Lehman took over.

But the current emphasis on the cost and quality of military hardware is also a form of political damage control that could prove important in the presidential race. The question is: Are these steps enough to satisfy critics who charge that the administration is on a military spending binge?

For several years now, conservative Republicans as well as Democrats have been hammering on the Defense Department's procurement practices. Republicans have been at the forefront of those pushing for such things as an independent weapons-testing office, warranties on new military systems, acceptable spare-parts prices, and more attention to whistleblowers.

These issues are part of the recent decision by all three services to refuse delivery of technically advanced conventional-warhead missiles that could prove crucial in combat, and to hold back monthly payments to Hughes amounting to nearly $38 million.

The Pentagon has ordered Hughes to provide a managment plan to correct problems in the Phoenix, as well as TOW and Maverick antitank missiles, before payment will be resumed.

Such controversial and politically hot topics as weapons performance and procurement were also likely on the minds of Hughes executives themselves, who recently halted - on their own - shipment of advanced fighter-aircraft radar systems found to be defective.

Critics wonder why - with some 100 Air Force inspectors at the Hughes plant in question - flaws continued to show up on missiles delivered to the services.

Said one senior Air Force official: ''There are a lot more Hughes people on the production line than there are inspectors. We're relying on the contractor to give us what we're paying for.''

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