Top Air Force officials have charged that Northrop Corp., which builds the B-2 "stealth" bomber and other expensive weapon systems, is so poorly managed that it cannot account for the cost of many programs and has suffered major breakdowns in the production of every weapon the service reviewed.

Air Force investigators, in a report made public yesterday, said Northrop's management of major weapons systems was so chaotic that the design team working on the engine of the B-2 bomber failed to notify the plane's structural teams of significant changes that could dramatically affect the unusual craft's airframe.

Military authorities also criticized the Los Angeles-based company for failure to properly manage relations with its hundreds of subcontractors and for serious problems in moving weapons from laboratory development to production. While the troubled defense firm is the subject of at least seven grand jury probes and 11 criminal investigations, the Air Force probe of its management and business practices is the first time the military service has openly criticized the company that is building some of the Air Force's most favored weapon systems.

The Air Force review was initiated partly as a result of those previous investigations, officials said.

"We saw the same sort of problems in each of the programs we looked at," Brig. Gen. Robert W. Drewes, who headed the Northrop investigation for the Air Force, told the oversight and investigations subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce panel yesterday. "It's not something to be proud of."

Drewes said the problems permeated two expensive projects for which Northrop is the prime contractor -- the B-2 and the Tacit Rainbow anti-radar missile, and components for two other weapons -- a major new electronic jamming system for the F-15 fighter plane, and the guidance system for the MX intercontinental ballistic missile. Drewes said there are problems with numerous secret, or "black", programs Northrop is engaged in for the Pentagon.

Despite the problems, the Air Force is continuing billions of dollars in new contracts for these programs.

Members of Congress, wrestling with defense budget controversies that have centered on the $62.8 billion B-2 program and other costly weapons, described the review as "devastating" and said it chronicled "the collapse of every aspect of Northrop management."

Northrop spokesman Tony Cantafio, noting that the Air Force said the company had begun to make improvements in some areas, said the corporation's management "will make the changes endure and carry out in other areas in the future."

He added, "We still have things to do, but the recognition that changes have been made is a favorable indication of the direction the company is moving."

Rep. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who chaired yesterday's committee hearing, said the report demonstrated "how one of their favored contractors has screwed up virtually every major Air Force weapons system entrusted to it."

Drewes described Northrop as a company which grew so rapidly -- from a $1.6 billion corporation in 1980 to a $6 billion firm in 1987 -- that its senior executives failed to develop proper internal controls over personnel, equipment and ballooning defense contracts. At the same time, Drewes noted that the company was rushing into contracts involving sophisticated military technology at a time when it had little experience as a prime contractor.

The Air Force team blamed many of the problems on the "culture" of a firm which tended to meet its expanding divisions by promoting from within its ranks, even though its employees may not have been the most qualified to handle the programs, and by allowing the company to develop as a loose federation of autonomous divisions with "no {or} little corporate oversight."

The company's leadership was overwhelmed with "too much too fast," and provided virtually no training for employees pushed into high management positions, the Air Force reported.

Last year the Pentagon awarded Northrop $631 million in contracts, making it the 30th largest defense contractor.

The Air Force probe, which was conducted this summer, also found:

The company has been unable to provide accurate cost and schedule estimates for its programs because of lack of internal controls and poor management practices.

All the programs reviewed faced major difficulties in making the transition from drawing boards and research laboratories to the factory and assembly hall.

Northrop is a poor manager of its numerous subcontractors, frequently making design changes in programs without notifying subcontractors.

The firm has serious problems coordinating its systems engineering teams which design and develop different parts of the same system, such as those that build the engines and the structure of the B-2 bomber.