Last summer, officers at Dyess Air Force Base in Texas were hard pressed as they worked to meet their October deadline for deploying the first B-1B bombers. A visitor at the time saw many signs that the program was being rushed: Training simulators had not been delivered, spare parts bins were empty, and logistics management systems were not in place. In fact, a chart on a blackboard in B-1B wing headquarters showed that testing of the plane would continue well after initial models were officially operational.
The B-1B is being fielded as a crash program, on purpose. In the language of the Pentagon, the bomber is ``concurrent,'' with production allowed to proceed before development is finished. This officially sanctioned haste may be a major reason that the B-1B still has serious teething problems, according to critics.
Concurrency is ``a major contributor'' to the lingering defects, said General Accounting Office (GAO) assistant comptroller Frank Conahan last week in a House hearing on the plane.
In particular, it is a factor in perhaps the plane's most serious and stubborn problem: the inability of the B-1B defensive electronics to jam enemy radars as advertised.
The contracts to Eaton Corporation to develop and produce the defense electronics were let on the same day. Thus Eaton engineers were still tinkering with the system long after it had begun rolling off the assembly line, Mr. Conahan said. When an electronics set was ready to begin production, the engineers simply used their most-current design as that set's blueprint. So each jammer is slightly different - and has slightly different problems than all its fellows.
``The Air Force has 100 of these defensive electronics systems, and their first step in fixing them is just trying to make all their errors the same,'' says a congressional aide who is following the plane.
When in response to Reagan administration requests Congress voted to fund the B-1B in 1981, the Pentagon promised that the plane would be ready for operation in 1986. Though this five-year elapsed time was considerably shorter than the seven-to-10 years normally allotted major weapons systems, the Air Force felt the goal could be achieved considering much work on the new plane had been done during the B-1A program, canceled by President Carter.
This rushed schedule has meant that much of the program's testing ``is incomplete in many areas,'' according to the GAO. This has led to problems with the plane's handling capabilities and terrain-following radar, as well as its defensive system. The crew training schedule has been affected.
The B-1B's original testing and evaluation schedule has been extended by more than 2 years. It is now planned to end in February 1989, eight months after all 100 B-1Bs are supposed to be operational.
Even this schedule could be overly optimistic. It allows no time for canceled test flights and no time to fix and retest any major performance problems, according to GAO.
The Air Force Chief of Staff, Gen. Larry D. Welch, in an interview Wednesday with Monitor editors, strenuously defended the B-1B and said concurrency per se was not the cause of the plane's problems. He said it has taken 16 years from the plane's initial conception to its deployment, far too long, in his view.
Furthermore, General Welch said, ``we needed the time the B1 bought us to do technical risk-reduction work on the Advanced Technology Bomber,'' also known as the stealth bomber, which is not expected to be fielded until the 1990s.
The plane's critics agree that concurrency itself is not a bad thing. The problem, they say, is one of degree: too much rushing on a complex program.
The Air Force formalized the concurrency process in the 1950s. At the time, the service was under tremendous political pressure to field new weapons to close a perceived military gap with the Soviet Union, according to Brookings Institution defense analyst Thomas McNaugher. One of the first weapons fielded concurrently, the F-100 fighter jet, had serious stability problems for some time.
Concurrency remains today an approach that serves political purposes, says Mr. McNaugher. Air Force generals who had seen the ups and downs of the B-1B program undoubtedly wanted to field the plane before it could be canceled again.