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While the Air Force is trying to build a range in western Utah to better test its electronic warfare equipment, a new report is blasting the current reliability of such gadgets.

The U.S. General Accounting Office, Congress' watchdog agency, has released a study saying the Air Force is buying and using radar detectors and scramblers before developing adequate gear to maintain it and ensure it is working properly.For example, it said built-in test systems now often report problems that actually do not exist (up to a 27 percent error rate) and often fail to find problems that are real.

It said almost half of the radar jammers considered to be operational by five fighter wings in Europe, Asia and the United States were found to have undetected, serious defects.

The GAO also complained, "The Air Force consistently produced and deployed electronic warfare systems before testing that they could be maintained under operational conditions."

Such testing is one of the reasons the Air Force has said it wants to develop a controversial electronic combat range in Utah's West Desert, where it could test radar and radio jamming and sensing equipment in low-population areas.

Local residents, however, are concerned about the increased number of flights, low-level flights, night flights and possible broadcast interference that could result, and have complained the Air Force has been secretive and has not involved them in planning.

Among some of the problems the GAO reported in its study on the ability of the Air Force to ensure its electronic warfare equipment is operational were:

- Much of the sophisticated diagnostic equipment used by Air Force technicians in shops to find problems in the electronic-warfare units is also unreliable.

"For example, at one tactical unit in Europe, two test-equipment stations were fully mission-capable only two months during a nine-month period GAO reviewed," the report said.

- The Air Force has often deployed new electronic warfare equipment without simultaneously developing equipment needed to test it.

The GAO said that was done to speed development of equipment the Air Force felt was needed badly to overcome advantages held by potential enemies. The Air Force said it will try to ensure development is simultaneous in the future.

- Because of such problems, the Air Force is relying on expensive contractor support. At one unit in Asia, contractor technicians made 60 percent of the repairs on electronic-warfare equipment. At one in Europe, they made 40 percent.

"Contractor technicians at the units visited told GAO that they would likely be evacuated during a combat situation," the report said, raising questions about whether such equipment could be maintained sufficiently during a war.

- Even when test equipment is procured, the Air Force sometimes does so without first evaluating its capabilities.