American and Israeli engineers supervising the construction of the two U.S. financed airbases in the Negev Desert today acknowledged problems in keeping up with the rapid pace of the project, but denied reports of widespread waste, misfeasance and panicky shakeups of top management.
Air Force Brig. Gen. Paul Hartung, U.S. Defense Department program manager for the Ovda and Rimon airbases, said, "In gross terms, we're right where we planned to be a year ago. We will meet the schedule, and we will do it within the initial budget."
His Israeli counterpart, Brig. Gen. Moshe Bartov, was even more optimistic, saying, "It will cost less than the original schedule. It is too early to say how much less, but it will definitely be less."
The two airfields, being built by the United States to replace Sinai peninsula bases that Israel is surrendering to Egypt under the Camp David peace accords, are to be completed in April 1982 at a cost of $1.04 billion, of which $800 million is being paid by the U.S. government. Only three years were allotted for the bases' completion less than half the normal time for such projects.
Israel's fiercely competitive newspaper for the past two days have been headlining "scandals" at the airbases, alleging expensive equipment purchases made abroad that could have been made here, costly changes in projects in mid-construction and inept hiring practices.
Hartung, Bartov and Brig. Gen. John Wall, Army Corps of Engineers project manager, met with reporters today and acknowledged that difficulties had arisen because of the "fast-track" construction. But they said the problems had been anticipated when the decision was made to start work even before a master plan had been completed.
They confirmed that the general manager at Ovda was returning to the United States, but said he was going to "a job as good or better" and that his qualifications had been best suited to the early phase of the job.
Wall said manpower director of the Negev Airbase Contractors, the consortium of American firms awarded the contract, was fired "because his qualifications weren't enough to be here."
But the project directors denied that either of the changes reflected concern on the part of the United States or Israel that the program has been misdirected.
"On such a short-lived job, you must have the very best people. You can't say, 'Okay, this man is not perfect, but he has other qualifications and is useful.' You must make changes," said Bartov.
Hartung confirmed that Gen. Bennett Lewis, chief of the North Atlantic Region of the Corps of Engineers, is planning an inspection of the airbases, but he characterized the visit as routine and said it was scheduled a year ago. b
Military sources confirmed that key Negev Airbases Contractors personnel in the Tel Aviv headquarters had been told to double their working hours because construction at both sites had reached a critical phase. Workers at the site have also been required to work heavy overtime loads.
Bartov said, "Time is money. If we could, we would have built each field separately and moved workers and equipmet from one to the next. But this wuld take at least another year. This is not the most economical year of doing it, but this was taken into consideration in advance."
In response to allegations that the contractors were wasting money importing supplies that could have been purchased in Israel, Hartung said, "The aggrement was to virtually import everything. The corps awarded the contract on that basis." The decision, he said, was based on "economic conditions and other factors," apparently referring to Israeli complaints last year that the $1 billion that would flow into Israel's economy would result in increased inflation.
Wall said some problems had arisen because the contractors are using some Israeli criteria they don't normaly use. But he stressed that the major difficulties stemmed from the breakneck pace and the fact that planning was being done as early construction work proceeded.
"Maybe you could get equipment cheaper in Israel," Bartov said. "That's hindsight. But they were told in advance not to buy in Israel, so you can't say now, 'Why didn't you purchase cheaper in Israel?"
Wall added, "In a fast-track project, you have to pay a premium," and he said the premium may be as high as 20 percent of the cost. But if the project has taken five years instead of three, he said, inflation would equal the added cost.
Hartung and Wall achknowledged that 319 Portuguese workers at the Rimon base had left -- "some voluntarily and some involuntarily" -- after they had demanded higher pay and better working conditions. Wall said agreements have been reached with the remaining imported laborers, and new Portuguese workers have begun to arrive.
Bartov said in any big military project, success is measured by three factors: quality, time and money. "In all three criteria, I'm sure the project will be successful." he added.