Bad Part Stalled Orbital ATK Production of Radar-Killing Missile

  • Deliveries of U.S. missile were delayed by flawed processors
  • Delay underscores how weapons depend on supply-chain quality

Orbital ATK Inc. stopped most production of a U.S. missile designed to destroy enemy radar systems, a $2.6 billion program, for about five weeks because of bad parts from a subcontractor, according to the Navy.

A “supplier quality issue” with resistors for radio-frequency processors in the missile’s warhead caused the slowdown at Orbital ATK’s facility in Northridge, California, according to a Navy spokeswoman.

While limited production continued with components on hand and deliveries of new processors resumed late last month, the pause will delay some missile deliveries for the company’s second and third full-production contracts by as long as three months, according to the Defense Contract Management Agency.

The delay underscores how dependent modern weapons are on quality control deep into a prime contractor’s supply chain. The flawed resistor, an off-the-shelf commercial product, was provided by a vendor to a subcontractor, Cobham Advanced Electronic Solutions Inc. based in San Diego.

The Navy “is engaged with Orbital ATK, addressing concerns of supplier control” and its surveillance of Cobham’s processes, Mark Woodbury, a spokesman for the Defense Contract Management Agency, said in an e-mail. The service is “discussing new courses of action” to improve oversight of subcontractors, he said.

Syria, China, Iran

The Advanced Anti-Radiation Guided Missile is intended to attack ground radar used by adversaries fielding sophisticated integrated air defenses, such as those of Syria, China and Iran. Designed as an improvement on the HARM missile, it’s equipped with a more modern homing receiver and navigation system to detect the radar signals of both stationary and mobile air-defense systems. The processor made by Cobham is the main component of the missile’s radar-homing section.

Orbital ATK “is working to improve their control of Cobham,” which resumed deliveries on March 21 after hiring a new vendor for the resistor, Woodbury said.

Bryan Kidder, a spokesman for Arlington, Virginia-based Orbital ATK said in an e-mail that his company and Cobham deferred all comment to the Navy.

The Navy spokeswoman, Jamie Cosgrove of the the Naval Air Systems Command, said the resistor had been purchased by Cobham from a qualified company that “up until this batch had delivered” devices that met requirements so “it is difficult to definitely conclude that there was a shortfall in Orbital ATK’s surveillance program.”

Still, “production rework continues to be a challenge that is being addressed by both the government and Orbital ATK teams,” she said. The company is updating procedures to discover “issues during Cobham acceptance testing” instead of on Orbital ATK’s production floor, Cosgrove said.

Buying More

The Navy said last month that it has increased the number of the radar-destroying missiles it wants to buy by 556, to 2,435. The Navy won approval to buy 155 missiles this year. It is seeking 253 next year and to 336 in fiscal 2018. About $532 million has been spent to date buying the missiles, with 175 completed weapons delivered, Cosgrove said.

The Italian Air Force is also buying the missile for use on its Tornado aircraft.

Separate from the quality issues, Michael Gilmore, the Pentagon’s top weapons tester, said his office has yet to see data rebutting his 2012 assessment that the weapon’s performance flaws “largely negate” its “ability to accomplish its mission.”

The Navy in late 2012 approved the missile for full-production despite Gilmore’s assessment; the service said software upgrades would resolve the deficiencies.

‎The missile is undergoing new testing to determine whether the software upgrade improved its effectiveness. Gilmore’s office will provide an “updated definitive assessment” later this year, his spokesman, Marine Major Adrian Rankine-Galloway said in a e-mail.

The missile’s latest test performance “has been affected by poor reliability, navigation software problems (which appear to have now been corrected), as well as some missile guidance problems, not all of which have been thoroughly investigated and fixed,” Rankine-Galloway said.

Cosgrove said the missile’s reliability so far is meeting its requirements, but “as with any weapon system” reliability is constantly monitored. The software upgrade is on track to meet its test completion schedule and once deemed effective will be installed on deployed missiles, she said.

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