Profiting on poor weapons

What would be the inevitable public reaction if a local school system, or a highway construction project, ran up costs a staggering 50 percent higher than budgeted? At first outrage, probably. Then some deep probing would begin to slash expenses as quickly as possible. So far as private industry is concerned, one can hardly imagine any major corporation in the United States that would long tolerate a company division or office that was exceeding its budget by 50 percent or so.

All of this comes to our thought because of the candid analysis of Navy Rear Adm. Frank C. Collins Jr., who recently told a New York Times reporter that previous estimates of added costs for major weapons systems stemming from shoddy work or unrealistic contractual specifications are far too low. Those lower estimates, made by Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Thayer, ranged from 10 percent to 30 percent. But according to Admiral Collins, who is executive director for quality assurance at the Defense Logistics Agency, in a wide array of weapons programs the actual cost increases resulting from poor work range up to a whopping 50 percent or so. And these added expenses, says Admiral Collins, are ''eating us up.''

Nor are cost overruns resulting from shoddy workmanship the only culprits in soaring weapons budgets. According to a report issued last week by the General Accounting Office, tests for a number of expensive weapons systems are slipshod, which means that additional work has to be undertaken at later times to ensure that the systems fulfill the tasks for which they were designed. ''Too often, the attitude is, 'Buy it now, Band-Aid it later,' '' says Sen. William Roth.

It is the responsibility of every member of Congress to ensure that the terms of Pentagon procurement contracts are being scrupulously met. Granted, a number of committees have already examined various aspects of procurement practices. But needed is more than just piecemeal efforts by a committee here, or a committee there. Consider what Congress did back in World War II. The Special Committee Investigating the National Defense Program - the so-called Truman Committee - was charged with taking a comprehensive look at the huge defense buildup then under way to ensure that taxpayer dollars were being well spent. The result, as noted by President Truman, was ''a tightening of efficiency between civilian and military programs, and the reduction of losses in materials , time, and manpower.'' Congress should consider such a searching review of procurement programs today.

At the same time lawmakers should give serious consideration to Senator Pryor's proposal that an independent testing agency be established in the Pentagon to assess new weapons programs. Currently, Pentagon officials both test and develop weapons programs, a conflict of interest if ever there was one.

At a time of soaring federal deficits and budget stringency it is essential that every dollar going to the Pentagon be spent as prudently as possible.

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