Public Policy: Rickover's Attack on Defense Contractors

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Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, who has long directed his salty criticism at inadequate U.S. schools and at unimaginative military brass, last week zeroed in on U.S. business. Industry has fallen dangerously short of meeting the exacting technological standards of the nuclear age, said the father of the nuclear submarine to a meeting of the American Society for Metals.

"I have found," said Rickover, "that management is reluctant to depart from outdated practices; that it is not informed of what is actually going on in the plant; that it fails to provide the informed and strong leadership necessary to bring about improvements in engineering and production." Not just the complicated gear but also the conventional components of nuclear plants are frequently flawed by faulty welding and casting due to ineffective quality control and failure to follow specifications, Rickover reported. "Delivery and performance of these conventional items have been less reliable than of the nuclear reactors themselves."

In recent years, said Rickover, less than 10% of conventional components, such as steam generators for naval nuclear-propulsion units, have been delivered on time; 30% were six months to a year late. After delivery, over 50% of them had to be further reworked to meet contract specifications. And in the case of steel castings, said Rickover, "we often have to order two to three times as many as we need because we have so much trouble obtaining satisfactory ones."

The submarine makers, who were right in the line of fire, did not dispute Rickover, but privately contended that he expects too much. Said one: "In meeting Rickover's standards, you won't lose any ships—they'll all be perfect—but the larger question is: Will you ever get any ships?" Recognizing that the admiral has obviously got his ships, officials in the Defense Department for once tend to side with its outspoken Rickover, feel that the performance of defense contractors would improve markedly if there were stiffer penalties for shoddy work and higher rewards for jobs well done.