WASHINGTON — In drab depots and windowless warehouses, in the dark holds of ships and on the back lots of bases at home and abroad, America's military supply system is swollen with stockpiles of 4.4 million different types of weapons, equipment and spare parts worth a staggering $132 billion.
And this inventory--embodying some of the nation's most sophisticated and sensitive technology--has quadrupled in size and scope during the last five years as President Reagan rebuilt the nation's arsenal.
Even as it provides sinew for new military power, however, a Times investigation has found the supply system so vulnerable to penetration by thieves and foreign agents, so troubled with sloppy bookkeeping, inadequate controls and outmoded computers, that dark questions arise:
--Is the supply system the soft underbelly of national security, an inadequately guarded back door to the wealth of advanced technology on which America's military might largely depends?
--Equally ominous, do thefts of such prosaic military hardware as booby traps and small missiles suggest the nation's own arsenal could become a supply depot for terrorists and others?
--Or, in time of crisis, are the Pentagon's endless warehouses and storage yards such an unmanageable morass that they could hamper the armed forces' ability to respond?
The answers to these questions are not entirely reassuring.
Senior Pentagon and military officials insist that classified weapons and parts are well protected and say they see no evidence of stepped-up Soviet efforts to seek military secrets through the supply system. However, high-ranking officials admit that they were startled by recent thefts of advanced military parts and equipment that the Pentagon had never thought it necessary to protect. And the evidence of theft, equipment losses and hopelessly muddled records in the supply system is so overwhelming that no one can say with certainty what has or has not been compromised.
Thus, although top Pentagon officials emphasize that vigorous efforts are under way to correct the problems, there is uneasiness in the middle echelons of civilian and uniformed management at the Defense Department and at military installations across the country, as well as in Congress and the cloistered offices of Washington think tanks. There is a seed of fear that unexpected vulnerabilities may exist, both to outside penetration and the system's own internal functioning.
Concern is also voiced that many of the problems are too ingrained and too intractable to be corrected in this decade.
The Times investigation--based on scores of interviews and examination of hundreds of documents--has found an interlocking web of problems:
--Supply system managers were completely surprised when it was discovered that Iranian agents had penetrated military security as part of a multibillion-dollar effort to obtain U.S. equipment for Iran's war against Iraq.
Theft of missile and aircraft parts had never been considered a threat. In the past, Pentagon supply managers seemed more worried about someone stealing candy bars than inertial guidance systems for the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's U.S.-made warplanes.
"It was a threat that we had not recognized before," said James H. Reay, deputy director of supply management at the Pentagon. "There's no doubt we were somewhat behind the power curve. . . . I think we're catching up fast."
--Thefts of components for weapons systems were partially masked by huge "inventory adjustments" made routinely by the Pentagon.
Last fiscal year, the five arms of the Defense Department's supply system (Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines and Defense Logistics Agency) reported losing or misplacing items valued at more than $1 billion--$1,021,876,000, to be more precise. On the other hand, they also reported finding $1,013,697,000 in equipment, parts and supplies they did not know they had.
Thus, officials point with pride to a net loss of only $7 million--rather than viewing the more than $2 billion in annual adjustments as a sign of what one internal audit report called "total turbulence in inventory records."
--Military supply operations depend on computers so outdated, ungainly and error-prone that, one expert said, "It is little wonder the supply system is a mess."
The 1960s-era computers are older than some of the persons running them and "have so many Band-Aids and have been patched up so many times that no one knows why things go wrong," another investigator said.
One Navy officer offered this analogy: "If an airline had our system and you were a passenger who bought a ticket and then wanted to confirm your reservation using the computer, you would have to wait in line at the airport for three days."