In combat, the smallest equipment malfunction can have dire consequences. This proved true during the Vietnam War when soldiers were caught in firefights with faultily designed M-16s that constantly jammed, and when other weapon systems malfunctioned such as the AIM-7 Sparrow missiles, early F-4 Phantom aircraft, and M163 Vulcan Air Defense System. To prevent those types of fatal errors in the future, lawmakers attempted to create agencies that would effectively test weapons before their use in combat. However, it was not until 1983, under the bipartisan leadership of Senators David Pryor (D-AR), William Roth (R-DE), Nancy Kassebaum (R-KS), Charles Grassley (R-IA), and the Congressional Military Reform Caucus, that an independent testing office was created to ensure the battlefield failures in Vietnam never happened again.
While operational testing makes sure that we, as taxpayers, are actually getting what we pay for when the Pentagon buys a new weapon system, it is more importantly an essential mechanism in saving the lives of the young men and women serving on the front lines. The person in charge of this process is the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E), an independent position inside the Department of Defense who answers only to the Secretary of Defense and to Congress.
The Senate version of the National Defense Authorization Act includes a provision to merge two critical areas of weapons systems testing: developmental testing, which determines the technical performance of a system, and operational testing, which determines how the system will actually perform in combat. The two types of testing serve very different purposes, and combining the two would erode the independent role that the operational testing director plays. Its role as an honest reviewer of weapons systems has already become a target of the weapons industry and its allies in Congress.
POGO’s Dan Grazier recently sat down with Tom Christie, a former Director of Operational Test & Evaluation from 2001-2005, to talk about the process of operational testing, the office of DOT&E, and what traits the next Director should have. (Click here for the interview on Soundcloud)