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Defiant Pentagon hides poor testing results behind phony firewall

Defense contractors and program advocates have unusual control over what the public sees, leading to bad oversight, or worse.

Analysis | Military Industrial Complex

Withholding information under the guise of classification “undermine[s] our national security, as well as critical democratic objectives, by impeding our ability to share information in a timely manner,” Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines said just last month. The Wall Street Journal, Senator Elizabeth Warren, and the Washington Post all agree. But the Defense Department is going in the opposite direction. It is attempting to mask deficiencies in weapons programs — revealed by their own testing — from the public. 

This effectively squashes debate and oversight of their programs. The costs come in the form of more expense, additional delays, and underperforming weapons in the hands of our military, which has and will cost lives. 

Nickolas H. Guertin, the Defense Department’s newly installed Director, Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E), wasted no time undermining his own office by going along with a scheme egged on by the military services to bury information about how the weapons they buy with taxpayer money are actually performing. Mr. Guertin endorsed his office’s new FY 2021 Annual Report, required by law, with wholesale deletions of presumably relevant material deemed not classified, but “Controlled Unclassified Information” (CUI), a category created during the Obama administration but not so dramatically exploited in these reports until now. 

Last December, Guertin’s immediate predecessor explained that unclassified information was being removed from the new public report because it “shouldn’t wind up in our adversaries’ hands.” Of course any material that will help enemies should be withheld and reported only in the classified version of the Director’s Annual Report to Congress. However, there is an important class of information that is essential to understand the depth and scope of plusses and minuses in how a weapon has performed in testing and how rigorously it was tested. This is essential to public understanding, and it is that comprehension that drives oversight by Congress, and even the Pentagon, to fix the problems. This is how our system attempts to make sure no seriously flawed systems get into the hands of our forces, which would truly aid the enemy, in addition to endangering our own people. 

The unclassified-but-not-for-public-eyes information (a preposterous category in itself) is not an effort to keep the enemy in the dark, but to keep the public in the dark. It stems from advocates of programs in the Pentagon bureaucracy and defense contractors seeking to mask deficiencies. They want to make sure no controversies emerge that might endanger the money flow, even when the problems cost more, cause delays, limit the combat effectiveness of these weapons, and endanger the lives of the troops. That is precisely what the DOT&E law was designed to stop when it was created in 1983 by a group of Republicans and Democrats in Congress over the bitter opposition of the Pentagon leadership and fellow travelers in Congress and industry.

Under the new CUI regime, the omissions are serious. Director Guertin’s report discloses that 22 accounts of weapons and their testing saw information removed by the military services. An article from Breaking Defense discusses what has been deleted, such as whether the defense systems on the Navy’s new $13 billion aircraft carrier can or cannot “detect, track, engage, and defeat the types of threats for which the system was designed.” It is one thing to foolishly disclose a technical flaw an enemy can exploit; it is quite another to disclose that system X, Y or Z cannot do its job — and with enough detail to permit an understanding whether the problem is serious and what fixes must be applied. Keeping that information away from the public simply means that Congress and the Pentagon will be under less pressure to act responsibly — and that the pressure that is applied will be less informed and easier to overcome.

Not among the programs that Breaking Defense found to have been watered down by the withholding of unclassified information was the notorious F-35, suggesting there is a second level of information deletion at work here. Reviewing the F-35 report submitted by Director Guertin, compared to predecessors, reveals a fundamental — even profound — problem. 

The Annual Report submitted by DOT&E J. Michael Gilmore in his last report in FY 2016 contained 62 pages of analysis of the F-35. Reports by his immediate successor, Robert F. Behler, varied from 30 to 16 pages. The section of the Guertin report on the F-35 is a whole nine pages. The texts of the previous reports were radically different. They contained multiple tables, details, and explanations for how and why the F-35 was failing to meet its performance and reliability thresholds, let alone combat expectations. Under meaningful explanatory discussion were issues such as the inability of the aircraft to be available for a mission, unpredictable performance in a stressful combat environment, and details like un-commanded maneuvers due to aerodynamic flaws and the gun not shooting where the pilot aimed. 

Also reported were the efforts of some in the military services and the F-35 Joint Program Office to incompletely test the aircraft or manipulate test results. None of this shows up in the public Guertin report. Multiple issues, such as the gun, have disappeared, and previous manipulations of the hundreds of deficiencies discovered in the F-35 would appear to be less of a concern today. 

There are two problems here, not one: there is the information behind the CUI labeling cover, and information never included in the report because the DOT&E office knew what the military services wanted addressed, and what they didn’t. It is the latter —self-censorship — that appears far more serious than the false classification issue. Why? Because it results in not just the deletion of phrases and sentences, but presumably pages and pages of detail and analysis. On the other hand, those with access to the CUI version of the report can make a comparison, should they choose to do so. 

Program advocacy in the Pentagon, much of which is done by defense corporations, is exercising control over the previously more independent and objective reports to Congress and the public on weapons testing. Inadequate public reporting means feeble oversight, plain and simple.

The current Director of the Operational Test Office is new to the job, but he is off to a very poor start. His office was created to contend with the forces arrayed against tough testing and complete, honest reporting, not comply with them. If there is any meaningful oversight in Congress, the redactions in DOT&E Guertin’s recent Annual Report should be fully assessed. More importantly, the prior restraint/self-censorship apparent in producing this and any other DOT&E reports needs to be fully investigated and eviscerated.

F-35 Lightning II demonstration team members sprint to their positions during the ground show at the Defenders of Liberty Air & Space Show at Barksdale Air Force Base, La., May 17, 2019. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Alexander Cook)
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