Rep. Bruce Vento (D-Minn.) has called for a congressional investigation of the Navy's new F18 jet fighter and light attack plane, claiming the multibillion-dollar warplane project is in deep financial and technical trouble.
Vento says the matter needs the immediate attention of the lawmakers because the F18 at $1.78 billion is the biggest single item in the new military budget now before Congress and because, despite critical reports in the past, the project has largely "eluded congressional scrutiny."
The Navy plans to produce some 1,377 of these twin-engine jets.
They are meant to replace aging A7, A4 and F4 fighter and attack planes in both Navy and Marine Corps squadrons over the next several years.
In february, the General Accounting Office -- an investigative arm of Congress -- produced a report titled: "F18 Naval Strike Fighter: Its Effectiveness is Uncertain."
The GAO said the plane is superior to other Navy aircraft in some areas but "its mission capability is undertain because its planned performance has been reduced and several performance problems remain uncorrected."
The GAO recommended delaying palnned monthly production rate increases until corrections are made and tested. It also called on the Navy to take another look at the costs, which had already grown appreciably and were then estimated by the Navy as $24 billion for the total development and procurement program.
The GAO also said that "on several occasions we were not granted access to information we felt critical to our evaluation," which was conducted at various Navy, contractor and Defense Department activities.
In letters to key committee chairmen and in a statement issued yesterday, Vento sought to focus new attention on the controversial plane. He pointed out that the GAO report had received little official notice and reported that he had received new "startling information" as a result of his own investigation.
Vento's staff declined to provide any documentation for the new charges, suggesting that it would get various people in the Pentagon in trouble.
But the congressman claimed that in the past 15 months alone, the F18 project had experienced a cost growth of 10.9 billion and that discussions currently under way in the Pentagon for the fiscal 1982 budget project a $32.8 billion total cost for the project.
The plane was originally proposed as a lower-cost way to modernize the fleet air arm, but Vento suggested that the cost of a single plane is now heading toward $24 million from the $6 million target price back in 1975.
He also alleged that the plane does not have the range to fullfill Navy needs for fighter and attack missions; that a recent Navy computer analysis casts doubt on the plan's meeting many mission requirements and that the White House budget office has also recently commissioned a new study.
In a series of questions, Vento also suggests that current initial production aircraft are restricted to speeds of 400 knots and limited maneuvers against the force of gravity and that the wing flexes so much in flight that an entire wing redesign may be necessary.
The McDonnell Douglas Corp. of St. Louis, Mo., is prime contractor for the F18, with the Northrop Corp. of Hawthorne, Calif., a major supplier of sections of the fuselage, and General Electric Co. of Lynn, Mass., supplying the plane's jet engines.
In a statement last night, the Navy pointed out that problems are always expected in the development phase of any complex weapon and that no problems have been identified on the F18 that require redesign of the aircraft or major components, such as the wing.
The Navy claims recent progress in the program is better than the planned rated and that the biggest part of cost increases in the F18 are directly attributable to changes in the economy and increases in the cost of labor and materials.