Buried deep in the House version of this year’s defense authorization is a brief provision that has great potential to improve and accelerate the way the armed services buy weapons—yes, an actual reform of Pentagon procurement. The irony is that this reform would mark a reversal of past “reforms” that helped make the current acquisition system such a mess.
The provision in question is “Section 851. Additional Responsibility for Director of Operational Test and Evaluation.” The nub of the matter is that the Pentagon’s chief test officer now must “consider the potential for increases in program cost estimates or delays in schedule estimates in the implementation of policies, procedures, and activities related to operational test and evaluation.” And not only that, he “shall take appropriate action to ensure that operational test and evaluation activities do not unnecessarily increase program costs or impede program schedules.” In other words, the physician should first do no harm.
The Pentagon testing office has, alas, been a Mengele-like menace almost since its creation in 1983. “Unnecessarily increasing costs and impeding program schedules” could almost be its mission statement. When he took office as Army chief of staff, Gen. Raymond Odierno explained the nature of the problem: “Sometimes we have tests that are done by the private industry and yet we redo the tests because we have to meet certain regulations and requirements.” Not surprisingly, he added, “I think those are areas that we could look at that could reduce those costs significantly.”
The testing office was a product of the “military reform” movement in -the 1980s, the work of a small band of Pentagon contrarians who were -convinced the “gold-plated” platforms of the Reagan buildup—the M1 tank, say, or the F-15 fighter, or the Aegis destroyer—were too sophisticated to function in wartime conditions. This proposition offered the appearance of reasoned opposition to Democrats like Gary Hart, who wished to slow defense spending without appearing too dovish. In 1986, Hart wrote triumphantly in the New York Times: “Five years ago, military reform was the province of a small band of iconoclasts in the Senate. Now the need for broad changes in the way we train, equip, and deploy our conventional forces has become conventional wisdom.” He was right: The Congressional Military Reform Caucus counted 130 members.
Creating an “operational” test office that would subject new weapons designs to supposedly “realistic” battlefield conditions was the reformers’ principal goal. “Strengthening operational testing,” promised Hart, “will give us more effective weapons at lower cost.” It was a tastes-great-less-filling argument that seemed plausible and, after the 1986 midterm elections returned the Senate to Democratic control, proved unstoppable. Reagan’s defense secretary Caspar Weinberger waited more than a year after Congress mandated the creation of the test office to appoint a director, and when he finally did, he chose former McDonnell Douglas F-15 test pilot Jack Krings for the job.
One of the first targets for the test office was the Army’s Bradley Fighting Vehicle. What originated as a complex debate about the role of mechanized infantry on a high-technology conventional battlefield quickly degenerated into a morality tale. A retired Air Force colonel, James Burton, was charged with the task, and he argued that unless the tests were rigorous, “soldiers in battle could die unnecessarily.” Senator William Roth—a moderate Republican from Delaware and a World War II vet—demanded the “Army must submit the troop carrier to realistic tests in a combat environment.” The New York Times was filled with righteous fury, charging the Army and Pentagon leadership with negligence:
The Bradley was a rolling powder keg; the Army knew it, and the brass wanted to avoid the live-fire tests because they knew a single Soviet antitank round could pierce the Bradley’s skin, blow up its stores of fuel and ammunition and burn its crew to death. Worse, in the view of some inside the Pentagon, Congress would get wind of all this and cancel the program.
Amid the controversy, Burton eventually was given carte blanche to conduct the tests. But, as a subsequent study of the program revealed, that meant “tests where the Bradley would stand, fully loaded and engine running, against overmatches, attacks with U.S. and Russian munitions that would clearly destroy the vehicle.” Tied like a lamb to the altar and smacked with a big weapon designed to kill fully armored main battle tanks, the Bradley—wait for it—blew up.