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Would you buy this tank?

If one were to pick a ''case study '' that underscores the Pentagon's tendency to buy complicated weapons -- and then fail to ride herd on development problems and production costs -- a good candidate might well be the new M-1 tank. The Army is planning to buy 7,058 M-1s, at a cost of $2.7 million each or a total cost of $19 billion, plus another $27 billion for operation and maintenance of the weapons system over its projected 20-year lifetime. Yet enough legitimate questions are now being raised about the safety, vulnerability , and operability of the M-1 as to make some lawmakers and defense analysts wonder whether the public interest might not best be served by a freeze or even total halt in the M-1 production line.

The issue is not one of rejecting the concept of battlefield tanks for the American military. The US definitely needs a battlefield tank. But it must be the right tank -- which means it must have a reasonable likelihood of doing what it is supposed to do and at a cost that is not excessive. It would be unconscionable for the Pentagon to push ahead with a massive tank-procurement program if there is sound reason to believe that the M-1 is a dud, or if changing technology has rendered the tank ineffective.

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Critics of the M-1, like Sen. Gary Hart and Dina Rasor, director of the Project on Military Procurement, an independent research group, point out that the tank has a pesky tendency to come to a halt for repairs every 43 miles or so; that the engine gets a paltry one mile for each 3.86 gallons of gas; that the hydraulic fluid in the weapon is particularly flammable; that tank drivers tend to have trouble operating the vehicle's complex array of computers and electronics. If this were not such a serious matter, it would be comic. There are also the ''backup'' problems, such as the fact that each tank battalion must have a large number of service and support vehicles, as if warfare were so tidy that tanks could be easily serviced in the midst of it.

And, if all this were not enough, there is the problem of what the military calls ''advanced kinetic-energy rounds.'' These are long, thin antitank projectiles that the Pentagon says it has discovered can penetrate -- guess what? -- the M-1 tank. For that reason the Army is now expected to award contracts to two companies this month to build test-model tanks based on the M-1 , but without turrets and with a thicker armor. In other words, the Army now says that the $2.7 million M-1s roaring off the production lines are vulnerable. Does that mean then that existing production should be stopped, even temporarily , until the design problems are resolved? Not according to one top Army official , who says, ''We can't stop building it.'' He adds: ''The fact that we got surprised, or that something can penetrate it, doesn't mean it isn't a great accomplishment. It can still stop a lot of types of projectiles.''

But the point is, can it stop ''advanced kinetic-energy rounds''?

The Pentagon may be correct in pressing ahead with the costly M-1. There are alternatives, of course, such as stepping up production of the older and cheaper M-60 ; or refitting even older M-48 tanks. But it would seem incumbent on lawmakers to ensure that whatever tank the Pentagon builds can at least do what it is intended to do -- and at a reasonable price to taxpayers

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