The chip girds for war Testing: Thanks to the computer chip, the Army can see a day when it will be able test just about any weapon by computer simulation.

December 02, 1996|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,SUN STAFF

Tiny but mighty, the computer chip is changing the way the U.S. Army prepares to fight wars and is saving the government money at the same time, says the new commander of the Army's Test and Evaluation Command at Aberdeen Proving Ground.

Eventually, anything from a pistol to a tank or missile could be developed and tested via computer simulation, said Maj. Gen. John E. Longhouser, 53, who took over in September as head of the 72,000-acre facility.

This "virtual proving ground" is faster, more efficient and more cost-effective than the traditional method of build-and-test, said the 1965 graduate of West Point whose command, known as TECOM, includes nine Army test sites around the country, including APG.

Eventually, it could mean fewer bangs and booms for those who live around APG as design and preliminary testing takes place in computers and as munitions go to the firing range only for final tests, the general said.

"We are finding ways to do things differently, to prepare for the next war, not the last one," he said in an interview about his first assignment to a testing position in his 31-year Army career. "We are turning the power of the computer chip into combat power."

The changes are not likely to hurt APG's position as the largest employer in northeastern Maryland, with about 15,000 military and civilian workers and an annual financial impact of $500 million on the area's economy.

The reason: APG remains headquarters for the Army's materiel testing programs nationally. And, while computer testing may in coming years trim the number of people needed to conduct those programs, testing -- including field tests -- will continue to be a priority.

"You always have to shoot at a tank to validate the virtual testing," Longhouser said. "The soldiers will interface with the weapons. You can't eliminate the soldier from the process."

In recent weeks, the primary work at APG -- weapons testing -- has been overshadowed by the allegations of sexual misconduct by trainers at the Army Ordnance Center and School, which is located at APG but which reports to the training command in Fort Monroe, Va. As commander of APG, Longhouser was the authority who made the decision to convene general courts-martial for three of the trainers under investigation.

An armored warfare specialist who served in Germany and had two combat tours in Vietnam before moving into the field of armor development, modernization and acquisition 15 years ago, Long-houser still wears strapped tankers' boots with his camouflage field uniform.

Under the old -- and still operative -- system, a contractor built high-cost weapons prototypes to Army specifications and the Army tested them at bases such as APG. Subsequent prototypes accommodated changes or corrected problems until

a final model was accepted for production.

However, squeezed by budget constraints and force reductions, the Army in recent years has been forced to find alternatives. The computer-based virtual proving ground emerged at the beginning of the decade as the answer, Longhouser said.

Under that system, prototype construction waits until computers have refined and tested the design. When a prototype is built, computers can simulate testing of its individual components, such as a fire-control system, before the entire piece is assembled and tested.

Only then will the soldiers drive the vehicles, track the targets, shoot the guns and fire the missiles.

So far, Longhouser said, about 10 percent of the Army's new equipment undergoes some virtual testing. By the end of the century -- as testing funds decrease -- about half will evolve in the artificial environment to some degree, he predicted.

An example is Lockheed Martin Corp.'s helicopter-borne Longbow Hellfire missile, being readied for testing at the command's Alabama test facility. Once the missiles are in production, they will be carried on Apache helicopter gunships.

"Now we can take test missiles and put them in simulation to see if they'll function properly -- without destroying the missiles," Longhouser said. "It saves more than $8 million a year just in qualifying the product, for an investment of less than $2 million."

Another example of money-saving as a result of the virtual proving ground comes in the inventory surveillance program used to test helicopter-borne missiles scheduled for replacement.

"We've been building and storing missiles for years," Longhouser said. "There is a 10-year shelf life for the missiles, after which we assume they will be replaced. But now we put them in simulation testers to assess their performance and extend their shelf life by several years."

Brett Lambert, of DFI International, a Washington-based defense and aerospace consultant, said the virtual proving ground is a "very sophisticated program" that has been "wildly successful."

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