GAO blasts bomber's IT

The General Accounting Office reported last month that problems with the command and control systems used aboard the Air Force's costly stealth bomber contributed to a list of deficiencies that limit the aircraft's ability to carry out bombing missions, a conclusion some experts said is inaccurate.

GAO concluded that problems with the B-2A bomber's automated ground-mission planning system, which is required to rapidly plan and launch strikes, as well as problems with the aircraft's defensive system, which is designed to provide pilots with information on enemy threats, "limit the aircraft's ability to fully meet" Air Force objectives.

The boomerang-like bomber was first developed in 1981 by Northrop Grumman's B-2 Division to be the Air Force's stealth bomber capable of delivering conventional or nuclear bombs across great distances in a short period of time. In 1986 each plane was estimated to cost $438 million. Today the total development and procurement costs for each bomber is estimated at more than $2.1 billion, according to GAO.

In its defense, Air Force Col. John Zelinski, a faculty member at the National War College and a former B-52 pilot, said the GAO report "assumes a throw-away mentality. People didn't catch on [in the beginning] that the B-2 program was evolutionary" in nature.

In its report, "B-2 Bomber: Additional Costs to Correct Deficiencies and Make Improvements," GAO concluded that the Air Force Mission Support System, which automates flight planning, weapons planning and terrain analysis, "frequently malfunctioned" and suffered from "so many failures that [Air Force operators] estimated it would take 60 hours to plan a conventional mission and 192 hours to plan a nuclear mission." The objective of AFMSS is to provide mission plans in eight hours, according to Air Force officials.

GAO also said the B-2A's defensive threat and warning system, which provides the bomber's crew with the location of known and unknown threats by matching sensor information with computer database files, "provided inaccurate or cluttered information to the crew and [created] unexpectedly high workloads for the operators."

In addition, GAO noted that new computer processors are required in order for the defensive systems to reach full capability, but the Air Force has no plans to spend the extra money to buy new ones. However, Air Force officials said the bulk of the $86 million added to the fiscal 1999 Defense appropriations bill to fix these problems will be spent on upgrading the plane's communications equipment and Defensive Management System.

Six of nine existing bombers have been modified and upgraded to what is known as a Block 30 configuration, the most up-to-date configuration that incorporates all the latest technological advances, said a spokesman for the 509th Bomb Wing at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri. The other three aircraft are configured in a Block 20 configuration, which provides minimal combat capability, and they are not scheduled to reach Block 30 status until July 2000.

In the early years of the stealth bomber program, many observers formed an opinion about the aircraft's capabilities by looking at Block 10 trainer versions, which no longer exist, Zelinski said.

Lt. Col. Jim Whitney, deputy commander of the 509th Bomb Wing's Operations Group, said software developers have improved the time it takes to plan conventional missions from 60 hours to 23 hours and that they are on schedule to meet the eight-hour planning requirement by the spring of 1999. Nuclear mission planning also has been improved to just more than two days, he said. Many of the problems identified in the GAO report were fixed as far back as three years ago, Whitney said. In addition, he said that problems noted with the plane's defensive system were "not as big of an issue as originally thought."

"We're confident we can use the AFMSS system to plan a conventional mission in [less than] 24 hours," said Lt. Col. Jim Hawkins, the 509th's combat plans flight commander.

In December, the Air Force will introduce AFMSS Version 1.5, which will use 300 MHz processors. In addition, the Air Foce will install AFMSS workstations at other bases to test the new features.

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