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Critics of New Army Vehicle Get a Lot of Mileage Per Tankful

December 13, 1987|BRYAN BRUMLEY | Associated Press

FT. BENNING, Ga. — On the red clay shores of Victory Pond, Sgt. Kent Brewer clambers proudly into the commander's seat of the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, a Space Age tool of war that some critics call an $11-billion boondoggle.

But not Brewer, a native of Billings, Mont., who is teaching other soldiers how war might be fought in late 20th-Century Europe.

"If you've ever played 'Star Wars' video games, then you can shoot this," says Brewer, showing off the weapons system inside the cramped turret of the Bradley, a tracked vehicle that looks like a tank but isn't.

"With this sight, we can kill an enemy tank even at night, something the Soviets can't do, or at least can't do as well," Brewer says.

The sighting system on this potent but costly weapon gives the gunner two levels of magnification and the ability to see in the dark, Brewer explains. He demonstrates how a device that looks like a sawed-off steering wheel with buttons fires the Bradley's TOW anti-tank missiles, its 25-millimeter cannon and 7.62-millimeter machine gun.

The Army says it needs the Bradley's considerable firepower to counter the Soviet edge in Europe, where 20,333 U.S. and other NATO tanks face 52,600 tanks from the Kremlin-led Warsaw Pact.

But critics of the Bradley--and there are many--call it a lemon and argue that it is a textbook case of what is wrong with the Pentagon.

In addition to the $1.55-million price tag and the nearly 20 years it took to design and deliver the weapon, a debate also rages over whether the Bradley is the right weapon.

"This is not the vehicle that will defeat the Russians," says Phillip G. Svalya, an attorney who represents Henry Boisvert, a former engineer for FMC Corp. of San Jose, Calif., the maker of the Bradley.

Acted as Whistle-Blower

Boisvert, acting as a whistle-blower, is suing FMC for allegedly failing to meet contract obligations on the Bradley by not taking corrective action after prototypes failed swimming tests. The Justice Department declined to join the suit, which is pending.

In a war, Svalya argues, Bradley formations could be trapped and destroyed between the rivers that lace Europe.

That kind of talk angers many soldiers at Ft. Benning, "the Home of the Infantry" near Columbus, Ga.

"The Bradley would make a good bass boat, except it's almost too fast to troll," boasts Army Lt. Col. Mike Tesdahl, who directs the Army's Bradley training program.

As Tesdahl extols the virtues of the vehicle, Brewer prepares a 50,000-pound Bradley to swim across Victory Pond.

Brewer and his crew need about three minutes to transform the Bradley into an ungainly boat. It rumbles down a gentle slope, chugs across the pond and gingerly climbs a red clay bank.

A crewman scrambles out and takes 25 seconds to lower the front edge of an incongruous green canvas "swimming skirt," which rises from all four sides of the vehicle and prevents it from swamping in turbulence.

The short cruise ends with all hands safe and dry. But a small sign on the front left-hand corner of the vehicle warns: "Soldiers Can Drown," a sober reminder that the skirt doesn't always work: A dozen Bradleys have sunk or been swamped in about 3,000 swimming tests. No one has drowned.

The commander of the 29th Regiment, Col. John Fuller, wishes that the Bradley was a better swimmer.

"If I were to design a weapon, which you and I as taxpayers could afford, I would design a better swim capability," Fuller says. "I would rather not have to erect a swim barrier."

Army boasting about the Bradley's firepower angers the critics.

"Enough of this Rambo rhetoric concerning the Bradley," said Sen. William V. Roth Jr. (R-Del.), as he released a study last March concluding that infantry riding in the Bradley's predecessor, the M-113, were less vulnerable to enemy fire. The M-113, said Roth, is more efficient because it carries 12 infantrymen plus a crew of three, versus six infantrymen and a crew of three in the Bradley.

6 Times Costlier

The Bradley's price tag makes it a little more than six times as expensive as the M-113.

Congressional watchdogs also have found fault with the Bradley's electronic sighting system, its transmission and even its bilge pump.

Anthony Battista, an expert on procurement employed by the House Armed Services Committee, called the Bradley a gold-plated boondoggle, "a textbook example of how not to build a weapons system."

The Bradley is named after Gen. Omar N. Bradley, the "soldier's soldier," who led the 1.3-million-man 12th Army Group to free Paris in World War II and was later Army chief of staff and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The vehicle traces its history to 1964, when the Army began casting about for an M-113 follow-on. Eight years later, the Pentagon approved production of the Mechanized Infantry Combat Vehicle, equipped with a 20-millimeter cannon, to weigh 35,000 pounds and cost $115,000 apiece.

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