Northrop Maintenance for U.S. Surveillance Plane Dogged by Flaws

  • Air Force says Joint Stars contractor took casual approach
  • Inspections find that many bolts were incorrectly installed

Joint Stars aircraft in Iraq.

Photographer: Suzanne Jenkins/U.S. Air Force via Getty Images

Northrop Grumman Corp.’s performance on its $7 billion contract to maintain the U.S.’s top aircraft for ground surveillance has been dogged by quality failings, according to a new Air Force review.

Poor quality was found on six of seven of the contractor’s Joint Stars aircraft that were inspected after the Air Force review raised questions about Northrop procedures. The service initiated the review after $7.3 million in water damage to radar was discovered in July on a plane that had just been returned from the company’s maintenance depot. The Air Force concluded Northrop personnel were responsible.

Joint Stars -- short for the Joint Surveillance and Target Attack Radar System -- is a Boeing Co. 707-300 airframe that Northrop equipped with radar, sensors and moving-target indicators. The 16 planes have been used since the 1991 Gulf War to monitor enemy ground movements and pass along locations for airstrikes and intelligence. The aircraft are now flying over Iraq monitoring Islamic State terrorists.

The review determined that quality issues at Northrop’s maintenance depot in Lake Charles, Louisiana, began to emerge in 2015, Air Force spokesman Daryl Mayer said in email. Northrop personnel on numerous occasions improperly installed bolts and failed to follow technical manuals, according to the Air Force. The service plans to inspect all of the aircraft by year’s end. While none of the deficiencies posed immediate danger to Joint Stars crews, they signaled potential safety problems, the officials said.

‘Casual Approach’

Colonel Darien Hammett, leader of the review team, said there was a “casual approach to quality on the contractor’s side because they didn’t have the processes in place that they needed.”

“Installing a bolt incorrectly was something that we saw a lot more often than we would have expected to,” Hammett said.

“Finding one non-conformance is bad enough,” Colonel Ray Wier, a Joint Stars program official, said in an interview. Wier said “in some areas there’s probably no impact if it’s not in flight-safety critical regions” but it could be significant if bolts were installed poorly in flight controls or a plane’s landing gear.

General Ellen Pawlikowski, chief of the Air Force Materiel Command who recommended the review after learning of more quality issues, said in an email it “validated that we and the contractor can do better to support the JSTARS fleet, an aging fleet with capabilities that are in very high demand.”

The Air Force opened a $7 billion contest in December to buy replacement aircraft that is likely to pit Northrop Grumman against Boeing and Lockheed Martin Corp. Until a replacement is deployed, the Joint Star’s age will complicate Northrop’s maintenance challenge, officials said.

Northrop’s Commitment

Tim Paynter, a Northrop spokesman, said in an email that the contractor “remains steadfast in its commitment to quality and safety to ensure the high demand Joint STARS fleet is mission-ready for America’s warfighters.” He said improvements have been made since the July water damage incident.

But Northrop hasn’t offered to pay for the $7.3 million in radar damage, Air Force program manager Steve Wert said in an email. The Air Force is reviewing its options to recover the money, he said.

Northrop is performing maintenance on Joint Stars aircraft under a $7 billion “total system support contract” awarded in September 2000 that had a six-year base with 16 annual options. It was paid about $1.1 billion from May 2011 to October 2015 for work on the surveillance planes, according to the Pentagon’s inspector general, who issued a critical report in November on the Air Force’s management of the contract.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.
    LEARN MORE