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Congressional Watchdog Confirms Weapon-Testing Benefits

To the consternation of many Pentagon program managers and their industry counterparts, operational testing exposes when weapon systems are not ready for combat and need to be fixed or canceled. Realistic testing to ensure that those fighting our wars are not endangered by unsafe or ineffective weapons has made the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E) a primary target for phony “reform” language, much of which was authored by industry to mandate that DOT&E consider impacts on cost or schedule before requiring more realistic testing. But this week the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report confirming what most objective and informed Pentagon watchers already know: operational testing does not cause significant cost increases or schedule delays in major weapons programs. In fact, it is essential for finding and fixing ineffective weapons programs before they fail in operational deployment.

Screenshot of the DOT & E Logo

The GAO’s findings are an unwelcome wake-up call to the defense industry and its allies in Congress, the Pentagon, and captured think tanks. The most recent attempt to attack testing comes from Thomas Donnelly of the American Enterprise Institute, who had so little factual evidence that he had to support his arguments with gross misrepresentations of fact and offensive and inappropriate comparisons to Nazi scientists. As explained below, the GAO’s report completely rebuts Donnelly’s misinformed Weekly Standard column. One of Donnelly’s gross misrepresentations is that the Congressional Military Reform Caucus, which wrote, support, and enacted the 1983 bill to create an independent operational testing office under a Director of Operational Test and Evaluation was a Gary Hart-led conspiracy of Democratic doves. In truth it was a bipartisan effort, with Republican Members of Congress often playing the most substantial roles. Senators David Pryor (D-AK), Nancy Kassebaum (R-KS), and William Roth (R-DE) led the effort in the Senate to implement the findings of the Nixon Administration’s Fitzhugh commission when they wrote the DOT&E legislation as an amendment to the FY 1984 National Defense Authorization Act. The amendment was approved by a Republican-controlled Senate on a 91-5 vote. Other outspoken supporters of the DOT&E legislation included former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Vice President Dick Cheney, who supported a similar amendment in the House of Representatives authored by yet another Republican, James Courter of New Jersey.

Donnelly highlights the Army’s Bradley Fighting Vehicle as an example of how destructive DOT&E is, even though the testing issues were discovered by other offices and in some cases actually predate the creation of the office by several years. Donnelly’s claims of technological revolutions in the Persian Gulf have been similarly debunked by the GAO, which examined DoD documents of the performance of high-cost, complex weapons in the war and found the industry-touted “revolution in military affairs” that was supposed to have occurred in Operation Desert Storm in 1991 to be a myth. Donnelly’s falsely cites and exaggerates the significance of the alleged victory of the “left hook” maneuver of Bradleys and M1s against the Iraqi Republican Guard in the Persian Gulf War as proving reformers wrong. Donnelly’s rewrite of history overlooks the escape of most of the Republican Guard with their equipment intact, enabling Saddam Hussein to stay in power. He is also too dismissive in arguing Col. Jim Burton, USAF (Ret.) was wrong to insist on stringent testing of the flammable, explosion-prone, poorly armored Bradley personnel carriers. The disastrous results of Burton’s tests forced the Army to revamp the Bradley’s armor and fire protection, saving American lives. 

In addition to being wrong about the past, Donnelly’s description of the present is also inaccurate. The GAO report effectively debunks a number of the operational testing myths he repeats, starting with the claim that such testing added gridlock. Turns out that significant disagreements between DOT&E and program offices are actually quite rare, with 90 percent of the programs evaluated by DOT&E resulting in no significant disputes with the program office. Moreover, when GAO evaluated a sample of programs where military service acquisition officials specifically asserted DOT&E added significant cost and time, GAO found no such thing since impacts were limited to “only a few cases.”

The GAO also refutes a common criticism of operational testing, put forward by the services and industry advocates, that it is redundant and provides little value to weapons program. But when questioned directly by GAO, military service officials said weapons programs actually benefited from resolution of disputes with DOT&E. For example, DOT&E testing on the Marine Corps’ Enhanced Combat Helmet found “inward deformation of the helmet shell during testing presented a serious risk of injury or death.” The Marine Corps resisted these testing procedures, which had been revised with input from the Armed Forces Medical Examiner, because it “forced changes to test procedures it had intended to use for the Enhanced Combat Helmet” and prevented the expedited production initially planned. But once the program passed the new testing requirements, the Marine Corps “found the Enhanced Combat Helmet preferable to the existing lightweight helmet and proceeded to full-rate production and fielding.”

In the grand scheme of things, GAO found the costs of operational testing “represents a relatively small amount of the total program cost.” When testing did seem to contribute to costs, the GAO found, it usually wasn’t the only or even the primary factor. Concurrency—the excessive overlap between testing and production, or failing to “fly before you buy”—created significant cost, schedule, and performance problems. GAO found that “in those cases, additional costs can stem both from increased testing and from production delays, as well as any potential retrofitting required for the systems already produced.”

A main cause of tension between program managers and DOT&E, the GAO found, occurred when DOT&E discovered contractual performance requirements that failed to relate to mission success or reflect realistic combat conditions. When DOT&E recommended more stringent testing to ensure combat effectiveness, military service program managers and contractors resisted. Needless to say, the students prefer to write their own exam and grade it themselves. If the service and industry “reforms” eliminating these DOT&E recommendations for improved testing were implemented, weapons programs would mainly test to performance thresholds they know they can pass and have little to do with real-word combat.

The GAO also highlights the Navy’s disputes with DOT&E over shock trial testing of the lead aircraft carrier, the USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78). DOT&E’s work on this program is an important case that shows how this office supports Congress in conducting effective oversight of major weapon systems. The Navy has tried to convince DOT&E that previous data collected from testing other ships, along with testing on individual components and equipment, is sufficient to determine survivability and reduce risks to sailors. This dispute may be getting closer to being resolved after it caught the attention of Senate Armed Services Committee leadership, who sent a letter to the Defense Department’s Under Secretary for Acquisitions, Technology, and Logistics (AT&L) this spring protesting the Navy delaying this testing. The committee also included a provision in Section 112 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2016 to limit funds for the next carrier, the USS John F. Kennedy (CVN-79), until the Navy certifies that full ship shock trials on the CVN-78 will be completed no later than September 30, 2017.

Program advocates in industry and the military services fear independent, realistic testing because it exposes when systems they are working on are not performing as advertised. As the GAO said, “Postponing difficult tests or limiting open communication about test results can help a program avoid unwanted scrutiny because tests against criteria can reveal shortfalls, which may call into question whether a program should proceed as planned.” No one should allow the invented history that Donnelly and the defense industry are spouting to weaken one of the few effective and lasting reforms that Congress, in an overwhelming bipartisan vote, created to hold defense contractors and the Pentagon accountable. Before we send our soldiers, Marines, airmen, and sailors into combat, we should know that their weapons will work in the chaos and stress they will face. Weakening DOT&E’s role will protect un-tested, problem-ridden weapons that will fail in combat and cost lives in warfare. We must not let our troops down just because someone in the Pentagon or industry doesn’t want life-threatening problems exposed, reported to the Secretary of Defense and Congress, and fixed.

By: Mandy Smithberger
Director, CDI Straus Military Reform Project, POGO

Photograph of Mandy Smithberger Mandy Smithberger is the Director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information at the Project On Government Oversight.

Topics: National Security

Related Content: DOD Oversight, Wasteful Defense Spending

Authors: Mandy Smithberger

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