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Policy Letter

POGO Letter to Senate Committee on Armed Services regarding the circumventing of operational testing and financial accountability of the nation's missile defense program

Senate Committee on Armed Services

Senator John Warner, Chairman

Senator Carl Levin, Ranking Member

228 Russell Senate Office Building

Washington, D.C. 20510

Dear Senators Warner and Levin:

In July of last year the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) issued a report detailing the reasons we feared that a sweeping January 2002 Department of Defense (DoD) directive would circumvent operational testing and financial accountability of the nation's missile defense program. However, at that time, we never imagined that the next step would be to exempt one of the U.S. military's most expensive and complex weapons systems programs from the Congressionally-mandated scrutiny of the Pentagon's only true independent tester, the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E).

POGO investigates, exposes, and seeks to remedy systemic abuses of power, mismanagement, and subservience by the federal government to powerful special interests. Founded in 1981, POGO is a politically-independent, nonprofit watchdog that strives to promote a government that is accountable to the citizenry.

While we take no position, pro or con, on missile defense, we nonetheless have serious concerns that recent missile defense program changes at the direction of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld could signal a step backward to the often misguided acquisition practices of the 1970s and early 1980s.

Now, unless your Committee acts swiftly to protect the public interest, Secretary Rumsfeld wants to move ahead with the deployment of a multi-billion-dollar missile defense facility in Alaska as soon as 2004 but not subject it to operational testing during the fiscal years 2004 and 2005.

This is unprecedented, and we strongly disagree with the notion that untested weapons should be placed in the hands of the nation's fighting men and women. First, this would give the public a false sense of security that an enemy missile would be shot down in the event of a nuclear attack. Second, the past has shown that the cost of developing a weapons system often spirals out of control when fixes and redesigns occur after production and deployment. Third, the premature deployment of even a rudimentary missile defense system like the Alaska test bed is likely to cause the missile defense program to be swallowed up by political momentum and never undergo operational testing at all.

Prior to the establishment of DOT&E, far too many overpriced and under-tested weapons systems were being placed in the hands of U.S. fighting men and women. We are writing you today to remind you that a new "buy now, fix later" acquisition chapter could be in the making.

The value of independent operational testing of weapons systems is at the very core of POGO's raison d'etre. In fact, during the early 1980s, POGO supported and was actively involved in the formation of DOT&E. For nearly two decades, we have seen the value of such testing play out time and again as a number of ineffective - even dangerous - and overpriced military weapons systems were redesigned, improved, or cancelled after being subjected to the rigorous testing standards of DOT&E.

When Congress first authorized the DOT&E in 1983, the goal was to provide an impartial and independent review of the adequacy of testing performed by the military services and interpret the success or failures of weapons systems before they enter the production stage.

The risks of deploying weapons systems before they have been thoroughly tested are many. And, if history is the teacher, then the clear lesson is that the best military weapons are those that are effective in the heat of battle. Who knows how many lives and billions of dollars were saved because realistic battle testing revealed serious flaws in aircraft, armored vehicles, ships, guns and other military hardware?

Despite countless past efforts by weapons program managers to cut back testing on their programs, DOT&E has persisted in its drive over the years to ensure that the weapons produced are useful in combat. In many cases, the U.S. General Accounting Office says these operational testing efforts have yielded very visible successes, including improvements in the C-17 cargo jet, the M-1 tank, and the Javelin Missile, to name a few.

Early on, DOT&E intervention proved very helpful to the C-17A, the first major acquisition program that relied on early operational assessment as a decision-making tool. Although in 1988 the Air Force supported the low-rate initial production of 40 C-17s, the Secretary of Defense lowered the number to 10 because operational testing had not begun. The subsequent operational testing provided timely insight into potential problems with the aircraft that may have been missed during developmental testing.

In later testing of the C-17, DOT&E pressed for further evaluation of one of the more valuable uses of the cargo aircraft, the transportation and deployment of large numbers of paratroopers into a combat zone. The Air Force approved full-rate production of the C-17 without even testing the aircraft for this function. DOT&E demanded operational testing and discovered that the air turbulence created in the wake of the aircraft, flying in close formation, caused the parachutes on soldiers dropping from the aircraft to oscillate, partially deflate, or collapse. DOT&E testing continues to determine if the Army standards of dropping a brigade and its equipment in 30 minutes or less can be achieved.

In operational testing DOT&E discovered that the upgraded M-1A2 tank was unreliable and unsafe due to unprompted main gun and turret movements, hot surfaces that caused contact burns, and unintended firing of the .50 caliber machine gun. After a series of follow-up tests, DOT&E demanded that the Army make design changes. Subsequent testing showed that the safety issues were corrected and that the tank is now operationally suitable.

The reliability of another weapons system, the Javelin Missile, also was greatly aided by DOT&E intervention. DOT&E insisted that the system undergo additional operational testing prior to a full-rate production decision in 1997 because over 50 design changes had been made to the system since initial operational test and evaluation in 1993. This subsequent operational testing ultimately led to a missile assembly design change that eliminated missile launch failure problems that had occurred under realistic combat conditions testing.

Even with the valuable contributions of DOT&E, the DoD's weapons acquisition system continues to churn out too many ineffective weapons. This fact was highlighted in a December 2000 report by the DoD's Defense Science Board which stated that "there is growing evidence that the acquisition system is not meeting expectations as far as delivering high quality, reliable and effective equipment to our military forces. In those cases where the testing is adequate, we fail to take the corrective actions needed based on the results of that testing. In many cases, we allow our acquisition programs to proceed to their next phases...when the test results we have gathered clearly indicate the systems are not ready."

The report went on to conclude, "The DSB Task Force has come to the same conclusion as have many of the congressional responses in the past. The value of testing and evaluation is finding flaws or weaknesses as early as possible during development at the lowest reasonable cost."

In the case of missile defense, rigorous independent testing is perhaps even more critical because the program has experienced numerous problems and faces daunting technological obstacles.

POGO strongly urges the Committee to block attempts to exempt operational testing on missile defense and other future attempts by the DoD to implement an "any weapon is better than no weapon" acquisition strategy. To allow this would be a disservice to the nation's military and the taxpayers.


Danielle Brian

Executive Director