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Panic in the Pentagon: Can’t Pass Weapons Testing? Army Chief Says to Get Rid of It

(Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)

Part of the Series

The Department of Defense (DoD) contractors and their followers in the Pentagon are in a panic. The first set of proposed cuts in the DoD by the Congress and the Obama administration, followed by the threat of more cuts if the Congressional “supercommittee” does not come to an agreement has them claiming potential national security Armageddon.

This week, Secretary Leon Panetta, who use to be considered quite the budget cutter when he was in the OMB (Office of Management and Budget) decades ago, now is sounding the alarm for the military-industrial complex. “Unfortunately, while large cuts are being imposed, the threats to national security would not be reduced. As a result, we would have to formulate a new security strategy that accepted substantial risk of not meeting our defense needs,” Panetta told the Senate.

I had high hopes that Panetta, based on his past dispassionate budget cutting, would not let the Pentagon bureaucracy sound the panic button on defense spending. I wrote a Solutions article last July hoping he would tame the DoD budget. He has not lived up to his reputation.

The defense contractors and the military services bureaucracy are using this potential defense “budget crisis” to cast around and offer up things to cut that they don't like. In a House Armed Services Committee on November 2, the new Chief of Staff of the Army, Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, took an unusual public swat at the testing of weapons:

Do we need to take a review of our testing requirements? 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. And I think those are areas that we could look at that could reduce those costs significantly.

Odierno has had a long career in the Army, but did not have a lot of experience in weapons procurement. I suspect that someone whispered in his ear that the testing on weapons by the Pentagon slowed down the procurement process and those pesky testing agencies were just bureaucratic trouble.

Loren Thompson, a long-time promoter of the current weapons system procurement in the DoD (he runs the Lexington Institute, a pro contractor nonprofit think tank, and he consults with DoD contractors with a for-profit consulting firm), jumped on this comment from the hearings and expanded his criticism in an article last week to specifically condemn operational testing:

Praise the Lord! A leader who sees the truth and speaks it! Gen. Odierno may not realize what a self-serving bureaucracy the Pentagon's operational testing and evaluation community has become, but just about everybody is irritated by the way it slows down programs and adds to costs.

Thompson claimed that Odierno showed great courage to finally “break the code on why weapons cost so much.”

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This is a silly assertion. Weapons testing costs are minor compared to the technical failures and gold plating of weapons during their design and early production stage.

I have been working to get effective testing of weapons to protect our troops and to be effective on the battlefield since the early 1980s, and it is laughable to say that testing is the main reason that weapons cost too much.

To understand Mr. Thompson's ridiculous slight of hand where he took an unfortunate and uninformed remark from the new Army chief of staff and blew it up to condemn weapons testing, specifically operational testing of weapons, you need to know the history of testing and the reforms that he disparages in his article.

There are two types of weapons testing; developmental and operational. Developmental testing is mainly done while the weapon is in research and development. Since the weapon is not ready for production, development testing is done by the contractor with the help of the government contract administrator. The goal of the testing is to see if the technology works as cited and to find out developmental bugs and kinks in the weapon.

Ideally, operational testing is done by the military service to see if the weapon can work in battlefield conditions while being maintained by the troops or the government civilians that will be using the weapon. This type of testing is supposed to test the weapon for effectiveness in the rough and uncertain world of war and it is not to baby it through to make sure it works. This is the testing that Thompson claims replicates private testing and costs the government so much time and money.

In actuality, operational testing is supposed to find out where the flaws and failures are in the weapon system and fix it before the very expensive task of taking the weapon to full production. It is far more expensive to fix a problem with a weapon after the government has made the decision to go to full production, so in an ideal world, Mr. Thompson and government contract managers should welcome true and tough operational testing that will help prevent costly delays and threat to troops that come when failures are discovered after full production or in a battlefield.

But contractors and the government contract managers loathe operational testing because it makes it harder to massage the results to show that the weapon works as advertised. It is easy to tweak results with developmental testing, but harder to do it when you turn it over to an operational testing unit. One of my favorite quotes on weapons procurement is the phrase, ” It is very hard to tell any man that his baby isn't pretty.” And unfortunately, there is immense pressure on operational testers to not flunk a weapon and embarrass the government contract manager and threaten to hold up the flow of money to the contractor.

In the early 1980s, I did many exposés on weapons that didn't work, and in the course of that work, I was shocked to find out, as with the operational tests on the M-1 tank, that the Army would cheat on the operational tests to cover the flaws of the weapon. For example, the Army would have a goal of going 97 miles with the tank without a serious failure of the engine, power train or transmission. The raw data in the test showed the failures and the Army would “score” the failures to make sure that minor failures didn't count. When you looked at the scoring, the Army was clearly trying to rationalize that the major failures weren't really major failures. Their excuses were almost juvenile, and when you took the raw data and winnowed out only the real minor failures, the tank was only able to go 34 miles between failures.

After seeing this happen over and over again and finding that there was a history of this weapons cheating, I wrote an article in Reason Magazine, called “Fighting with Failures.” The article outlined the problem of military services fudging or downright cheating on operational testing. The solution that I suggested in the article was something that military reformers had dreamed about – having an independent operational weapons testing agency in the DoD that would independently check to make sure that each military service was not allowing bad weapons to make it onto the battlefield.

After the article was published in 1982, I was having lunch with Sen. David Pryor (D-Arkansas), a senator who bravely took on the DoD bureaucracy and the pharmaceutical industry. After we talked about all the failures and problems of the military procurement system, he said that he wanted to do something. So, I reached into my bag and pulled out my article. I told him that the DoD needed an independent operational testing office to keep the services from cheating on this important testing. He decided to take that plunge and put in the bill. After much work by many members of the military reform movement and some clever legislative maneuvering, the bill passed and the Director, Operational Test & Evaluation (DOT&E) was formed.

This is the office that Thompson claimed, “Gen. Odierno may not realize what a self-serving bureaucracy the Pentagon's operational testing and evaluation community has become, but just about everybody is irritated by the way it slows down programs and adds to costs.” It was “self-serving” because it showed the military services, the government contact managers and the DoD contractors that their babies were not pretty, gold plated, ill suited for battlefield conditions and full of technical failures.

The current director of DOT&E, Michael Gilmore, did a study to see if weapons testing unduly held up weapons and cost money. He revealed the results in a June 3, 2011 memo:

The Defense Acquisition Executive (DAE) recently chartered an independent team to assess expressed concerns that the Department's developmental and operational test communities' approach to testing drives undue requirements, excessive cost and added schedule into programs and results in a state of tension between Program Offices and the Testing Community. Concurrently, the Director, Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E) and the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Developmental Test and Evaluation conducted a systematic review of recent programs to address the question of whether testing increases costs and delays programs and, if so, by how much. The results of both efforts indicate that testing and test requirements by themselves do not generally cause major program delays. However, other problems were identified.

More specifically, the DAE assessment team “found no significant evidence that the testing community typically drives unplanned requirements, cost or schedule into programs.” The DOT&E review examined 40 programs that experienced significant delays during the past few years and found that 7 of those programs experienced some delays due to testing itself. However, none of those programs was delayed solely by problems in testing and in no case was a testing problem a principal cause of delay. In 37 programs, there were delays caused by problems discovered during testing. Problems found by testing were shown to cause much longer delays than any delay caused by testing itself. Furthermore, a DOT&E review of 76 recent programs found the cost of operational test and evaluation to be only about 1 percent of a program's total acquisition cost, exclusive of test infrastructure costs. We will continue our efforts to make testing both rigorous and efficient.

The DOT&E office has not always been as independent, tough and effective as I would have liked, but is it a reform that has helped make operational testing a benchmark on whether a weapon should go into full production. When a weapon is deemed to be fully developed, it then goes into an initial low rate production so that the operational testers can test a weapon off of a production line instead of a prototype. Once it had passed its operational tests and fixed its problems, it can go into full production. One can imagine how angry the government contract manager and the defense contractor become when they are confronted with the flaws of the weapon and have to fix the problems.

Yes, fixing the problems can cost more money and time, but consider that development of the F-22 that was in development for 20 years before the operational tests delayed it for several months. Which one of these processes slowed down programs and added to costs as Thompson claimed? The answer is obvious.

Development of a weapon and development testing can take on a life of its own and run for years with great expense. Since 1977, the Navy has built a ship in a cornfield just off the New Jersey turnpike, to test Lockheed's AEGIS, a surface combat system that has been placed in 81 ships. The AEGIS has a history of problems in actual combat, such as accidentally targeting and bringing down an Iranian commercial airliner in 1988. This facility, known as the USS Rancocas, or the “cornfield cruiser” has been jointly run for development and developmental testing of the AEGIS radar for many years and many millions of dollars. Ironically, it was not a realistic way to test the AEGIS radar, since radar accuracy is much different over water than it is for cornfields, and the tests were using straight-flying commercial flights going overhead to develop the targeting. But this type of expensive testing was used for years and years by the military service and its contractor.

In an article in the Moorestown, New Jersey, newspaper, it is clear how close the contractor works with the Navy on this AEGIS developmental testing for many years:

Retired U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Wayne E. Meyer was the first Aegis programmer and one of the men who brought the USS Rancocas to Moorestown…. Meyer is known as the “father of Aegis.” He said the cornfield site has become hallowed ground and a symbol of the unification of government and industry.

“From day one, we have mingled and co-mingled … The mingle is virtually inseparable and you can't tell who is who when things are going,” he said.

Some 35 sailors and 50 Lockheed employees work together at the field station, continuing the mission that began three decades ago. The facility is the land-based test and evaluation site for the development of Aegis.

So, operational testing is a small amount of money and time to make sure that our weapons don't go into full production, and we field weapons that won't fail our soldiers. But now the contractors and the government contract managers, in the false claim of saving money, want to cut the guts out of operational testing under the guise of saving money.

If General Odierno and Thompson really want to save some money, here are a few solutions that could save millions, if not billions in the weapons acquisition process:

  • Tom Christie, one of the best directors of DOT&E, served as the director from 2001 to early 2005. As required by law, he produce 32 operational weapons test reports from his office that were sent to the secretary of defense and the Congress. Half of the reports showed enough severe failures to warrant a stop in proceeding to full production of the weapon, but not one of these flawed weapons were stopped and were actually approved for full production. The flaws found in these weapons will show up later in the acquisition cycle or even in the battlefield where there will be very costly modifications or much higher maintenance costs, let alone subjecting our troops to weapons that don't work. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta could save large sums of money if he would be willing to seriously look at the reports of failures coming out of DOT&E and fix problems before just rubber stamping flawed weapons for full production. If he won't do it, the Congress also gets these reports and should hold up the money for full production of the weapons until the flaws found in the report are fixed. General Odierno spent many years overseeing the war in Iraq, so he should be much more sensitive and appreciative of operational testing that can prevent a bad weapon being sent to his troops.
  • If the DoD would like to stop the delays in weapons production, they should stop allowing weapons to be designed with the most expensive, shiny, new requirements that are not effective and feasible for a battlefield and nip gold plating of weapons from the start. When a weapon is proposed, the military services are mesmerized by cool, new technologies that don't have any real use in the battlefield, but they layer them on weapons anyway. Large DoD contractors like Lockheed encourage and push these expensive technologies because it raises the price of the weapons – more cost, more profit, especially on the follow-on contracts. Then, the military services and the companies spend years trying to perfect these inappropriate technologies at great cost and then continue to tweak them when they fail true battlefield operational testing. The cornfield cruiser effect is repeated over and over again at great expense to the DoD budget with little help to the troops. So much more money can be saved by curtailing this technological orgy at the beginning of the weapon's development instead of trying to fix often unfixable problems before full production. This will require real discipline by the secretary of defense and the Congress to stop this reckless practice, but maybe they will have to get serious when they are facing real cuts to the DoD.

Fixing what is really wrong with weapons procurement in the DoD would save billions of dollars, but also would require political courage and hard work. Unfortunately, it is much easier for the DoD to cut the money from the messengers in the bureaucracy who bear bad news.

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