The purpose of operational testing is to assure the military services field weapons that work in combat. This purpose has been codified in both Title X of the U.S. Code and in the Defense Department 5000-series regulations.
Operational testing is intended to occur under "realistic combat conditions" that include operational scenarios typical of a system's employment in combat, realistic threat forces and employment of the systems under test by soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, rather than by hand-picked or contractor crews.
The need for realistic operational testing prior to committing funds for full-scale production and fielding has been recognized for many years. As far back as mid-1969, a blue ribbon defense panel was formed, beaded by Gilbert W Fitzhugh, to make a comprehensive examination of the organization and functions of the Defense Department. One of its major subordinate study groups was on the topic of operational testing.
Prior to 1969, the services had experienced several notable and expensive failures in weapons fielding before conducting sound operational tests. Two examples are the fielding of the M-16 rifle to infantry combat units in Vietnam and the fielding of the F-5 aircraft to operational Air Force units in combat. The M-16 failures in combat were egregious, resulting directly in American casualties and pressure being brought to bear on Congress to investigate. Congress then required the Defense Department to conduct an operational test in 1967 and 1968 in the jungles of Panama. That test revealed serious deficiencies in the weapon that required modifications to the rifle, resulting in the M-16A1.
In the case of the F-5, a 12-aircraft squadron was deployed to Southeast Asia in 1965, where it was intended to be compared to the F-100 and F-4 aircraft that were already deployed. Many issues were found with the F-5 under these operational combat conditions, and were best summarized by an Air Force colonel who reported that, while the aircraft was a pleasure to fly, it could not go very far or carry enough ordnance to do much after it got there. One F-5 was lost to enemy fire during this deployment.
The group that investigated operational testing as a part of the Fitzhugh panel concluded that: operational testing can, and should, contribute significantly to decision-making within the department; its quality as it was conducted then was very uneven across the services; and results of the operational testing that had been done had not been made available to the senior decision makers within the office of the secretary of defense.
It also concluded that: operational testing within the services was best performed by an independent organization that reported directly to the chief of the service; that it was not adequately managed or supervised at the OSD level; and that there was a shortage of experienced and capable personnel directly involved with operational testing.
The Fitzhugh Panel in the summer of 1970 made several related recommendations: that there should be an assistant secretary of defense for test and evaluation to create and implement policy; that separate program elements for operational testing should be created within the services, with OSD responsible to ensure that service testing budgets are adequate; that a separate program category should be created in the defense budget for operational testing; and that a defense test agency should be established to design tests or review test designs, perform or monitor test performance, and evaluate the entire T8LE program.
This last recommendation was not implemented. The position of director of defense test and evaluation was created but placed within the directorate of defense research and engineering rather than being an assistant secretary.
Eighteen years after the Fitzhugh panel recommendations, Congress again became involved with operational testing. Motivated in part by the well-publicized issues surrounding the live-fire testing of the Bradley fighting vehicle, Sen. William Roth, R-Del., chairman of the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs, held hearings in 1983. Many witnesses testified that the conduct of operational testing within the department continued to be unsatisfactory, and the earlier Fitzhugh panel findings were reinforced. Particular criticisms were that systems were being procured in full-rate production before they were adequately tested, that existing testing was merely to confirm engineering requirements and was not conducted under realistic combat conditions or...