WASHINGTON — Northrop Grumman replaced at least one official at its JSTARS depot in Lake Charles, Louisiana, after four JSTARS aircraft were grounded last year as a result of maintenance problems.

Defense News broke the news last September that the Air Force had suspended flight operations of four Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System aircraft, about one quarter of its total fleet. At the time, the service raised concerns about pilot safety after finding quality issues in aircraft that had recently undergone maintenance in the Northrop-led depot.

Since then, Northrop has made "substantial progress," that included changes to its leadership on the JSTARS sustainment contract, Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski, the head of Air Force Materiel Command, said during a March 2 briefing to reporters.

A Northrop spokesman confirmed that the company had named new leaders at the depot, but declined to comment on whether officials had been fired over the incident.

"Northrop Grumman has implemented operational and process improvements in partnership with our Air Force customer at our Lake Charles, Louisiana, facility where Joint STARS sustainment is performed. New executive leadership has been assigned in Lake Charles to oversee these improvements," the spokesman said.

The four grounded JSTARS aircraft — part of the 116th Air Control Wing at Robins Air Force Base, Georgia — returned to operations last September. Since then, the Air Force hasn’t had to suspend flight operations for any JSTARS planes as a result of maintenance quality lapses, Pawlikowski said.

The sustainment problems stem at least partially with the Air Force’s confusion over when and if to retire JSTARS. When the service planned to retire the fleet, it kept aircraft from moving into depot maintenance, believing that no further work would be needed before they were mothballed. However, after it decided to keep operating JSTARS, a higher number of planes than expected were rushed to the depot, she said.

"Joint STARS is a system that as we have gone back and forth a couple times over the last several years about retiring them [or] not retiring them," she said. "As we went through all that, we found that we levied some requirements on the depot that they maybe weren’t as prepared to do."

Although Pawlikowski added that the company should have been able to flex its manpower when needed, she acknowledged that Northrop had to deal with unexpected demand.

"We needed those aircraft out, so that’s where you see the struggle with putting additional pressure" on Northrop to increase its throughput.

One of the concerns that led the service to ground the aircraft was that bolts had been improperly installed on aircraft, Pawlikowski noted. Oversight processes had also been relaxed, so maintenance work was not as heavily scrutinized as it had been on previous contracts.

According to Pawlikowski, the Air Force has since added some layers of inspections, while Northrop improved training and quality control processes. The parties also modified the incentive structure on the contract to balance capacity and quality, which had languished.

"As we had gone through trying to get more airplanes through the depot, we had kind of shifted the incentive to be [structured] more on how fast we were able to get them through," she said. "Never was it anybody’s intentions … on the part of any of us to sacrifice quality for speed, but unfortunately I think we saw some of that."

Northrop spokesman Vic Beck said the company has made "steady improvement" to its performance on the sustainment contract.

"Since September, we have implemented additional operational and process improvements in the areas of quality, workflow and supply chain management at our Lake Charles depot maintenance facility," he said.

Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.

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