The Bradley vehicle's troubles: the case for independent testing

A NUMBER of lessons should be learned by the military, the Congress, and the American people from the brouhaha over the Bradley armored personnel carrier. Major weapons systems should be independently tested before a decision is made to buy them. Tests have insufficient credibility when, as with the Bradley, they are conducted principally by the military service that wants the weapon.

The tests should be realistic. It is not excusable to rig them so that the weapon comes out looking better than in fact it is. Serious questions arise as to the validity of some tests on the Bradley, and the House Armed Services Committee is probing charges that the army manipulated some of them.

It is not defensible for the Defense Department to transfer officers out of the Pentagon who are knowledgeable about weapons systems or tests because they are critical of them. Whether intended or not, such action sends a clear message to officers that rather than pass accurate judgments, they must toe the party line or risk punishment. For maximum effectiveness, America's military forces deserve clearheaded assessments. Appearances are that such a transfer may have been forced on a supervisor after he criticized an aspect of testing of the Bradley; instead he chose to retire.

Finally, test results should be thoughtfully evaluated. Destruction of a weapons system in a test may -- or may not -- mean the weapon is a failure. As for the Bradley, it is questionable whether its having been destroyed by an antitank weapon means the vehicle should be scrapped. Antitank weapons demolish tanks, which are much more heavily armored; putting that much armor on a vehicle supposed to carry troops, as the Bradley is, would destroy the mobility that makes it desirable in the first place.

Awesome as tanks are, they often need the protection of infantrymen. For the United States to fight a conventional war in Europe, some mechanized way must be found for small groups of infantrymen to keep up with fast-moving tanks -- if not the Bradley, then some other vehicle. Toting soldiers in trucks or jeeps would leave them too exposed to enemy fire.

Despite its vulnerability to antitank fire, the Bradley transports small groups of soldiers swiftly, as it was designed to do. Going back to the drawing board at this point would mean a wait of about 10 years before its successor became available: That is just too long.

Some ideas and plans have already emerged for making the Bradley more resistant to fire: storing fuel and ammunition outside the crew area, not inside, or cladding the vehicle with some explosive armor to thwart hits from incoming shells.

The Bradley should be given independent and realistic tests, and promptly. Needed changes should follow.

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