Courtesy Reuters

Testing Times

By Philip E. Coyle

To the Editor:

Eliot Cohen's article "A Tale of Two Secretaries" (May/June 2002) gives a good account of why the Department of Defense is so difficult to manage and to change. However, he is incorrect when he says that the Predator unmanned aerial vehicle was "judged [to be] not 'operationally effective or suitable'" because of the "extraordinary standards for effectiveness set by the department."

Cohen cites the October 2001 "Operational Test and Evaluation Report" on the Predator UAV by Thomas Christie, who is the Pentagon's chief testing and evaluation official. In that report, Christie acknowledged the military value of the Predator, but he also reported that the Predator failed to meet its intended military requirements in realistic operational tests. Cohen wrote that this "was a classic case of impossibly demanding requirements causing the Pentagon to disparage its own systems." However, those requirements are set by the military users who must field this equipment overseas -- the war fighters -- not by the testers.

Is it asking too much to expect the Predator to be able to fly in less than ideal weather? Is it asking too much for the Predator to provide reliable communications? Is it asking too much for the Predator to provide coverage at night? These are just a few of the operational requirements that the Predator did not meet.

In operational tests, the infrared sensor on the Predator achieved only a five percent probability of recognizing a tank, such as a Russian T-72 or U.S. M1A1, compared with the objective probability of 90 percent. The Predator also had unacceptable target-location errors, which were the subject of a separate classified report by Christie.

The Air Force proposes to operate the Predator system (four air vehicles and one ground controller) with a detachment of 55 Air Force personnel and 2 civilian technicians. Given this large support crew, the Predator has a long way to go before it will be the autonomous, all-weather, reconnaissance-and-strike platform that U.S troops overseas and U.S. taxpayers have been led to expect.

Despite the remaining challenges, the Predator does have considerable military value. As Cohen wrote, the Predator has been one of the "technological stars" of the campaign in Afghanistan. But it is not too much to expect U.S. military systems to deliver what they promise. Defense contractors always tout capabilities that they have not achieved, and may never achieve, as if they are in hand. When someone such as Christie shows us what has actually been accomplished, we should be thankful. As Christie himself wrote in the journal National Defense recently, we should not blame the testers for the shortfalls in our military systems.

Philip E. Coyle

Former Assistant Secretary of Defense and Director, Operational Test and Evaluation (1994-2001).

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