WASHINGTON — Government investigators reported Thursday that they had found massive problems in the $130-billion military supply system, including apparently widespread theft of ammunition, explosives and other combat gear.
Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.), a supporter of President Reagan's military buildup, requested the General Accounting Office study and said he was distressed by the preliminary findings, which he disclosed at a news conference. They indicate that losses through waste, theft and mismanagement "could be in the billions of dollars" and that "our tax dollars are not buying muscle," he said.
And, in an interview later, Wilson said that the management deficiencies documented by the GAO "may be more serious" than long-running military procurement scandals involving everything from overpriced toilet seats and coffee pots to contractor charges for boarding a corporate executive's dog.
"It is a massive problem" that must receive "much higher priority" at the Pentagon, he said.
However, Pentagon officials responded by criticizing the GAO's investigative procedures and contending that there was little new in the agency's findings.
Weinberger Defends Programs
Defense Secretary Casper W. Weinberger said in a letter to Wilson that "release of observations obtained in so cursory a manner does a disservice to the conscientious and constructive programs we have initiated."
Weinberger said that "prudent safeguards . . . (and) strong programs" had been implemented in the last four years as the Pentagon paid "unprecedented attention" to correcting supply system problems.
"Progress is being achieved and I am confident that we are on the right course," Weinberger said in the letter, which was released by Wilson's office.
But Wilson, pointing to a stack of more than 300 internal audit and investigative reports he said the Pentagon and the military services had completed in the last five years, contended that more needs to be done. The GAO, in analyzing these reports and conducting its own field investigation, found "loss and waste so widespread and serious as to require urgently that far greater efforts be made," he said.
Wilson requested the GAO investigation Sept. 5, five days after The Times disclosed that the nation's huge military supply system, with an inventory of weapons and equipment that had quadrupled with Reagan's buildup, is vulnerable to penetration by thieves and foreign agents and is troubled by sloppy bookkeeping, inadequate controls and outmoded computers.
Task Force Created
Wilson, who chairs the Senate Armed Services subcommittee on manpower and personnel, said the chairman of its parent committee, Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.), had authorized creation of a special task force to examine the Defense Department's inventory management problems.
He also said that he has directed the GAO to continue its inquiry in an effort that may last for several years. And he said he will conduct hearings to determine what reform legislation may be needed.
The GAO's preliminary findings cover a range of theft, security and bookkeeping problems, including:
--Losses of large quantities of ammunition and explosives. The Army alone reported losing more than 2 million of these items in the last six years, the report said, but accounting procedures are so lax that "it is impossible to determine how much is being lost or stolen each year."
"The services often do not know items have been stolen until they have been recovered by law enforcement agencies," Wilson said. "This situation exists for highly sensitive and pilferable items such as ammunition and explosives, night vision devices and combat gear."
Wilson said that the Army has known of "its inability to account for and secure its ammunition and explosives for years, but no policy changes or effort sufficient to eliminate the systemic causes have occurred."
--Lax physical security at some supply depots. GAO investigators said they made unannounced night visits to two Army and two Air Force warehouses in West Germany and gained "undetected and unchallenged entry" at all four. They said they found many supply items--from automobile batteries to computer parts--that they "could have easily stolen."
At the Air Force installations, the GAO investigators said, security police are not required to check the warehouses after duty hours but "they are required to check the bowling alley and chaplain's office."
--Bookkeeping that is so poor that the services often lose track of their equipment. Wilson cited the example of $13.5 million in parts returned to the United States by Army units in Europe that "were sent back to other units in Europe, making a needless round trip because the Army lacks the ability to determine that what one unit does not need can be used by another."
He said the Army is trying to correct the problem by setting up a European redistribution facility.