In the world of conflict and deterrence, preventing or at least limiting war relies on weapons that operate as advertised. But can it be said that key components of the United States arsenal - which currently is being filled at a rapid pace with many new and highly complex systems - will work as planned?
A new report by the General Accounting Office (GAO) finds serious fault with Pentagon weapons testing: inadequate planning, not enough effort, possible conflicts of interest between testers and builders. The agency looked at a range of new weapons and concluded that many of the most important ''will be deployed without having fully demonstrated their capabilities under representative combat conditions.'' Included are the air defense systems aboard the Navy's Aegis cruiser and Phoenix air-to-air missile, the Army's Patriot missile, and the Air Force's new offensive avionics system for the B-52 bomber.
''The losers are the troops expected to defend their lives with undependable weapons and the American taxpayers, who must foot the bill for production of billion-dollar weapons systems that do not work,'' says Sen. David Pryor (D) of Arkansas, co-author of a bill that would establish a new independent office of testing and evaluation.
Defense Department officials defend their program and say if there is a problem, Congress is at least partly to blame for not adequately funding weapons tests. And the GAO, which has issued a string of similarly critical reports over the past dozen years, says the armed services have made some improvements.
But even within the Pentagon, there is acknowledgment that things could be better. Recently, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul W. Thayer (a former Navy pilot and World War II ace) told a gathering of defense contractors in Washington that weapons costs could be cut 10 to 30 percent if mistakes were detected before production began.
''Every time there is a story about hardware that doesn't make the grade, our credibility is eroded,'' said Mr. Thayer, former chief executive of LTV Inc., a major defense supplier.
In Senate testimony this week, the Pentagon's deputy inspector general cited problems found in audits of weapons tests: Defense Department policies encouraged development and operational testing at the same time, which didn't allow enough time for needed design changes; test facilities and equipment did not provide a realistic combat environment; and contractor personnel and support systems were too heavily relied on during tests.
The issue is particularly important today. The Pentagon's procurement program has grown more than 60 percent over the past thee years, not counting inflation. As a portion of total defense spending, new weapons buys are taking ever bigger shares.
Most of the new gear is high technology, designed to prevail on the ''electronic battlefield'' that many analysts envision. The subject is important for the Western alliance as well as the US because the whole thrust in NATO defense today is toward long-range, stand-off weapons, quality over quantity, and stealth instead of muscle.
In the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon, Israel used some of the most modern of airborne electronic platforms, TV-carrying drones, and antiradar missiles (as well as far superior pilots and tactics) to crush the Soviet-supplied Syrian Air Force.
But the GAO finds that in the US armed forces, ''development of electronic warfare threat simulators and aerial targets have not kept pace with the deployment of the enemy's weapons.'' As a result, the congressional watchdog agency warns, ''all three military services are unable to test, to the extent possible, many of their weapon s -o in a representative combat environment.''
For a growing number of lawmakers, the answer is an independent test and evaluation office within the Defense Department - a proposal with 19 cosponsors so far in the Senate. The new office's director would be subject to Senate confirmation, and Congress and the GAO would have direct access to test progress and results.
Isham Linder, current Pentagon director of test and evaluation, says this ''would not only be micromanagement in its worst form, but would also generate a cumbersome bureaucratic giant with virtually no redeeming qualities.''
But Sen. William Roth (R) of Delaware says testing ''has taken a back seat to the rush to purchase new weapons.'' What is needed, says the Senate Government Operations Committee chairman, is ''accurate, candid, and thorough testing data provided by a strong and independent testing office.''