GAO: complex weapon gadgetry is hampering US fighting forces

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

The ability of the United States to fight a war may be "severely hampered" by problems with its tanks, guns, ships, aircraft, and other weaponry. That is the finding of a report published by the General Accounting Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress, which asserts that:

* The F-15 fighter has "extensive problems" with its engines and automatic test equipment that impair its readiness.

* The Navy's MK-86 fire-control system fitted on more than 40 warships frequently fails, leaving vessels "virtually defenseless."

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* The Army's M60A2 tank has "a long history of unreliability."

* Dragon antitank missiles miss the target due to component malfunctions.

The GAO attributes equipment failures of this sort to three factors: human error, poor design, and insufficient logistical support -- such as the provision of spare parts, tools, test equipment, and technical manuals.

"There are indications that human ineptitude or poor human reliability may cause over 50 percent of all weapon system failures," the report states. "The increasingly complicated nature of modern military systems, together with shortages of qualified military personnel, suggest that human- induced errors both in operation and maintenance of systems will increase," it maintains.

According to the GAO, military personnel fail to follow procedures, incorrectly diagnose situations, misinterpret instructions, and pay insufficient attention to the task at hand.

In addition, the report finds that "the reliability intended to be designed into a [weapon] system is often not being achieved in the field."

By way of example, it notes that 150,000 projectile fuses bought by the Navy proved useless, because their tolerance levels were such that they "would not fire from a gun that was not perfectly maintained -- a near impossible task" aboard a ship.

It adds that the demand for high performance has forced designers to incorporate new technology into systems -- often before their reliability has been fully assessed. Indeed, technology itself is posing a new challenge to weapons systems, the GAO asserts. Although providing steadily improved weapons system performance, technology brings complexity, high cost, and lengthy periods of research and development in its train.

The GAO contends that without modifications to its electronic test equipment, the Air Force's F-15 fleet cannot be brought to a higher degree of readiness. "This is compounded by the . . . F-15 engine reliability and durability problems ," it observes.

The poor performance of the Navy's MK- 86 fire-control system -- which permits the simultaneous tracking of more than one target -- can be attributed to numerous failures among the 40,000-plus parts of the system, the report asserts.

It adds that the dismal reliability record of the M60A2 tank appears to extend to its laser range-finder and notes that its turret has been described as "fantastically complex" by one tank commander.

The report recommends that the secretary of defense ensure that all major systems are subjected to testing and examination "from a human factors standpoint . . . particularly in the developmental stages" and that, before they are deployed, they are thoroughly evaluated for their supportability.

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