Talking About Defense: A weapons tester's advice

The Pentagon has just lost its longest-serving weapons tester.

For the past six years, Philip E. Coyle III has been taking independent looks at new arms under development and sounding warnings about their shortcomings, in hopes that no weapon goes to a soldier, sailor, airman or Marine before it is ready for battle. In summing up his tour of duty as the Pentagon's fourth director of Operational Test and Evaluation since the job was established in 1983, the soft-spoken Coyle--a mechanical engineer and nuclear weapons expert--raised a series of provocative questions:

Why not make defense contractors assume more of the risk of testing their own products before handing them over to the military to test?

Giving poignancy to this question are the deaths of 23 Marines in two recent crashes of the V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft built by Bell-Boeing. All of the crashes occurred during flight tests conducted by the Corps. Coyle told National Journal that today's Pentagon contracts encourage this rush to failure. On every level, there's significant pressure to skip extensive testing while the weapon is still in development and to push forward with production, Coyle said. This pressure comes from corporate executives who want to get into the production stage, where they make most of their money; from generals and admirals impatient to get a new weapon to the field; and from politicians in a hurry to see jobs created in their home districts. "It's time to take a new look" at the way the Pentagon buys weapons, Coyle said, and "time to improve contractor incentives" so that they can "make money by making, and correcting, mistakes" while their weapons are in the development stage.

Today's rush toward production sometimes results in military test pilots fighting for their lives in an aircraft that goes out of control because of flaws the contractor did not discover and correct early in the development program.

Why doesn't the Marine Corps halt its march toward production of the Osprey troop carrier for a year or so to identify and fix the plane's technical problems?

The Osprey's fatal accident rate of one crash for every 800 to 1,000 hours of flying has generated a crisis of confidence, Coyle warned. Now is the time to subject the complicated plane to 3,000 hours of testing under the kind of battlefield stresses it will one day face, he recommended. By doing this, the Marine Corps "would be saying to [Defense Secretary] Donald Rumsfeld, `We don't need to cancel this program. We're not ready to go forward anyway.' There is a legitimate argument that the Osprey went into operational testing [the current phase in which the crashes occurred] about a year before they should have."

Why make protecting the whole United States from some vague and distant strategic missile threat from a "rogue" state the top priority, when we should be finding ways to protect our troops from battlefield missiles aimed directly at them today?

"For 10 years, we've had a very real threat from Scuds," which Iraq used in the Persian Gulf War in 1991, Coyle noted. North Korea has Scuds pointing at U.S. troops in South Korea right now. And still the United States has no effective defense against these crude missiles. If top priority were put on defending against theater missiles, "we'll learn a tremendous amount" that can be applied to perfecting area missile defenses, "and maybe even some day national missile defense," Coyle said. Why do the generals and admirals running the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps keep shooting themselves in the foot by shortchanging their own weapons testers and weapons facilities?

Coyle said it was penny-wise and pound-foolish for the armed services to cut their testing personnel by 30 percent and their testing facilities by 32 percent over the past decade. Of all the frustrations Coyle experienced while serving as the Pentagon's director of operational test and evaluation from Oct. 3, 1994, until Jan, 20, 2001, he said his biggest was his inability to reverse this financial starving of military testing during the early days of a weapon's development.

Why not greatly extend the flying competition between the Boeing and Martin Lockheed versions of the military's next-generation warplane--the Joint Strike Fighter--so that their flaws would become visible under stressful, combatlike conditions?

The Pentagon intends to pick a winner this year-too soon in the planes' development cycle, in Coyle's view, for an aircraft projected to cost the taxpayers $200 billion or more.

Coyle's call for extending the testing phase of the Joint Strike Fighter is likely to have great appeal to President Bush. Bush has expressed doubts about whether the nation can afford to buy three new tactical aircraft at once: the Navy F/A-18 E and F fighter-bomber; the Air Force F-22 fighter-bomber, and the Joint Strike Fighter. Delaying production of the JSF would save millions of dollars while revealing potential flaws through more-extensive testing.

Although Coyle, 66, is out of the job he held longer than any of his predecessors, he will be in a position to raise questions about the way the Pentagon develops and buys its weapons. He will move to California, but his new job as a senior adviser to the Center for Defense Information, a Washington think tank in the process of a makeover, will bring him back to the capital. Looking back at his 76 months of trying to separate the wheat from the chaff, Coyle said: "I got the most satisfaction in those cases where I knew that the troops got a better system than they would have if we hadn't been there."

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