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Over bunkers, through the fields in the M-1 tank we go

Dina Rasor, meet Steve Armstrong.

Yes, Dina, I know you're the Wonder Woman of whistleblowers. As director of the Project on Military Procurement, you've unearthed much of the critical information on Pentagon weaponry. And no doubt you've forced the generals and admirals to make improvements in such costly and controversial beasts as the M-1 Abrams tank.

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But I think it would help to see things from Steve's point of view, too. He's a young staff sergeant, in his 20s like you, and a family man from Ohio with twin six-year-old girls. He spent three years in West Germany staring across the border at the Ivans and Vanyas in their T-64 and T-72 tanks and leaves soon for another hitch with NATO. Steve's an M-1 tank commander.

The criticisms of the M-1 are well known. It costs five times as much as when it was introduced. It breaks down often. It's an incredible gas-guzzler. You've brought much of this to light, Dina, for which all cost-conscious Americans should be grateful.

The Army laid on a public relations counterblitz the other day to defend the M-1. Generals and colonels and majors with charts and graphs spent three hours taking on the criticisms of the M-1 point by point, and I must say they did it forthrightly and with some persuasion.

The brass would not have to drive the M-1 in a shooting war, of course. So it was even more interesting to hear from the enlisted men they had flown up from Fort Knox, Ky. Men like Jim Miller from Amarillo, Texas, a sergeant first class who was wounded in Vietnam. Or Kevin Crowley from Minneapolis, just a few years out of high school and earnestly trying to grow a moustache.

First, Maj. Gen. Jim Maloney tried to explain the cost escalation by comparing the M-1 to the ''Oldsmobile Vistacruiser with lots of goodies on it'' he bought in 1972. It had a price tag of $5,000 then, but would cost $14,000 now.

The difference with the M-1 is more startling: $507,000 apiece in 1972, $2.6 million now. The Army says 14 percent of this can be accounted for in ''value added'' improvements like better armor and more protection against biological, chemical, and radiological attack. Five percent, the Army admits, is growth for which they'll accept the blame, but the rest (81 percent) is just plain old inflation. Without that, the general said, the M-1 would cost $604,000 today.

Yes, the M-1 does swill fuel like there was no OPEC, the Army says, but we knew it would. After all, it is argued, it has twice the power of its predecessor, the M-60. And for 1,500 horsepower and a 60-ton behemoth designed to leap hills at 45 miles per hour, you aren't going to get a Toyota.

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Yes, the M-1's track life is only about half what we'd like (2,000 miles), but we're working on that. On the other hand, the officers argued, system reliability has exceeded design goals: 350 ''mean miles between failure'' instead of 320.

Well, the reporters eyes were beginning to glaze over with all these numbers, so the Army PR men pulled out their ace: They helicoptered us out to the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland and let us play with the M-1 and the older M-60.

We watched them lunge around a muddy field like two iron-clad dinosaurs and bang away at a tank-sized target 2,000 meters away. Naturally, the M-1 won.

Then they let us do it, and for a few minutes I was George Patton himself (actually, George C. Scott playing General Patton). With a grin full of dirt, I crashed through hedgerows and leapt over bunkers, blasting away at Nazi machinegun nests. ''Slow down!'' the instructor yelled, but how often does a middle-aged boy get to play with a $2.6 million toy? There was no slowing down.

I was seeing things from Steve Armstrong's point of view.

''I'm glad they listened to the troops for a change,'' he said, watching an M-60 strain up a 60 degree grade while the M-1 whizzed up without much effort. ''I can move faster on the battlefield and support more people. I've got more things to contend with now, like anti-tank missiles. With the M-1, the power and speed are available, and I don't have to hope that I won't get hit.''

At day's end, I felt grateful to both you and Steve, Dina. You for forcing the Army to build what we all hope will be a better tank. And Steve for knowing how to use it, just in case. You're both good patriots.

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