Premature Weapons Testing Drains Military Budget

Acquisition officials sometimes approve programs that aren't ready for operational testing, creating costly headaches down the road.

The U.S. Defense Department’s top weapons tester had plenty of bad news this week for some of the military’s most expensive weapons programs — from the F-35 fighter jet to the Littoral Combat Ship.

In his annual report to Congress, J. Michael Gilmore, director of the Pentagon’s Operational Test and Evaluation office, said the fifth-generation fighter has cracked during testing and isn’t ready for combat operations, and that the LCS has had problems with their guns, mine-countermeasures and anti-submarine warfare systems.

But perhaps even more troubling was his assertion that acquisition officials, in some cases, continue to approve programs that aren’t ready for operational testing — a practice that creates costlier problems down the road.

“While always important, it is especially important in the current fiscal climate that system reliability is emphasized early in the acquisition process. Reliable systems cost less overall (because they require less maintenance and fewer spare parts), are more likely to be available when called upon, and enable a longer system lifespan,” according to the report.

Gilmore has added a section to the report specifically to assess problems found too late in the process. The move was “based on concerns from Congress that significant problems in acquisition programs are being discovered during operational testing that arguably should have been discovered in developmental testing,” he writes.

In 2013, 44 programs had “significant” problems discovered during so-called initial operational test and evaluation, known in acquisition parlance as IOT&E, according to the report. Of these, a dozen had issues that surfaced for the first time and should have been found and fixed earlier.

Among these were the Army’s battlefield communications network called the Warfighter Information Network – Tactical, or WIN-T, being developed by General Dynamics Corp.; AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile, or AMRAAM, made by Raytheon Co.; and the Mk 54 Lightweight Torpedo, also made by Raytheon.

This isn’t a new problem.

Program managers have repeatedly defied his office’s recommendations and let weapons systems prematurely enter initial operational test — a phase when finding “significant issues” in a system should be rare.

Previously, for instance, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for developmental test and evaluation, a position now held by C. David Brown, determined that four of seven weapons programs should not enter operational testing, but they “proceeded anyway,” according to last year’s assessment. As expected, all but one program had “significant issues” during evaluation, including the Joint Tactical Radio System’s Handheld, Manpack and Small Form Fit program.

The latter is among 10 programs in this year’s assessment in which the problems identified in development testing resurfaced during operational testing.

The report strikes an optimistic note in that most program managers in recent years implemented fixes to problems that appeared during operational testing. “While significant issues are being discovered late in the acquisition cycle, most programs are addressing the discoveries and verifying fixes in follow-on operational testing.”

Overall, though, the trends are headed in the wrong direction, according to the document.

During the 17-year period from fiscal 1997 through fiscal 2013, 75 out of 135 weapons systems, or 56 percent, met or exceeded reliability threshold requirements during operational testing, it states. That’s down from almost 64 percent from the 12-year period from fiscal 1985 through fiscal 1996.

Update: An earlier version of this post incorrectly linked to last year’s report. Also, it has been updated to include additional information from this year’s assessment.

About the Author

Brendan McGarry
Brendan McGarry is the managing editor of Military.com. He can be reached at brendan.mcgarry@military.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Brendan_McGarry.
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