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The Pentagon has ignored congressional orders to do a better job of testing weapons before it invests in multimillion-dollar programs, says the watchdog arm of Congress.

As a result, the Pentagon's 5-year-old weapons testing program still cannot adequately assess whether weapons would work in combat, the General Accounting Office says.The GAO review deals with the Pentagon's Office of Operational Test and Evaluation, which was created by Congress in 1983 in an attempt to do a more realistic job of testing weapons.

The legislation was triggered by the discovery of serious flaws in several major weapons systems after they were well into development.

The GAO report was released Tuesday by the Congressional Military Reform Caucus, a group of 140 legislators who banded together in 1981 to seek management changes in the federal government's largest single agency.

Rep. Charles Bennett, D-Fla., a caucus member, told Defense Secretary Frank C. Carlucci the Pentagon had ignored Congress' orders to test weapons realistically.

"Congress cannot depend on the realism of the weapons tests, or the independence of the testing reports we receive," said Bennett.

Carlucci, appearing at a House Armed Services Committee hearing, said he hadn't seen the report and couldn't comment on its specifics.

But he then went on to criticize what he said is "an increasing tendency on the part of members of Congress" to seek GAO reviews without giving the Pentagon a chance to review the reports before they are released.

Dan Howard, Carlucci's spokesman, was even more critical. "The difficulty is that those (members of Congress) who do not wish to inform themselves, who very carefully guard their ignorance, obviously are not going to learn about the details of our testing programs," he said.

Sen. David Pryor, D-Ark., a co-sponsor of the 1983 legislation, said: "I am disappointed but hardly surprised. I have never seen evidence of any desire by the Pentagon or this administration to make this office work as we in Congress intended it to work."

The GAO reviewed the Pentagon's test of six major weapons, including the Navy's Aegis air defense. That is the sophisticated tracking system involved in the July 3 shootdown by the Navy cruiser Vincennes of an Iranian jetliner in the Persian Gulf. The Pentagon says the ship thought it was firing at an Iranian F-14 and is investigating the incident.

The other weapons in the GAO study were the Army's Aquila drone plane; the Army's helicopter improvement program; Navy Tomahawk conventional cruise missile; the newest targeting system for the Air Force Maverick missile; and the Air Force LANTIRN system for night-time targeting.

The GAO concluded that there were "significant problems and limitations in the planning, execution, realism, analysis, and service test agency reporting of the six" programs. Some of these problems and limitations "were unavoidable due to time, resource or safety constraints, although numerous others were not."

The GAO study said the Pentagon hadn't followed congressional orders to make the tests as realistic and combat-like as possible.