THE Pentagon is balking at carrying out a law that could save soldiers' lives and taxpayers' dollars. In 1983, Congress voted overwhelmingly to require the Pentagon to create an independent office for weapons testing. The goal was to ensure that weapons are thoroughly tested under simulated combat conditions - known as operational testing - before thousands of them roll off the assembly line.
But the Pentagon has obstructed Congress's mandate for reform. It tried to restrict the new testing office's jurisdiction and delayed its opening. Today, more than a year after the testing office was supposed to begin operating, the President still has not nominated a permanent director to head it. As a result, it is understaffed and lacks clear direction.
Meanwhile, the need for the testing office is greater than ever. The military services are still buying expensive weapons that have not been rigorously tested. For example, the Army has spent $1.5 billion to buy 146 Divad antiaircraft guns to protect front-line troops, although repeated Army tests have shown the gun cannot shoot down maneuvering aircraft. In July, the Divad even had trouble hitting a stationary helicopter.
Before the 1983 law, the Pentagon office responsible for developing new weapons was also in charge of testing them. The conflict between these two functions led Congress to separate weapons developers from testers.
But the Pentagon did not see it that way. Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and other Pentagon officials argued at the time that an independent testing office would be duplicative and further complicate weapons procurement. Congress was not swayed by these arguments. It ordered that the new office, the Directorate of Operational Test and Evaluation, be established by Nov. 1, 1983. The Pentagon, however, has dragged its feet on the law.
Not only has a permanent director not yet been appointed, but five of the new testing office's 12 professional jobs remain empty. The vacancies have left the office impossibly shorthanded.
In addition, disputes over the office's proposed charter caused the charter's final publication to be delayed five months. Originally, Pentagon officials tried to define operational testing so narrowly that the new office would be powerless to act as Congress intended. This ploy backfired when several members of Congress - as well as some service officials - protested the wording of the proposed regulations.
Senators and representatives are openly skeptical about Secretary Weinberger's insistence that the Pentagon is ''actively and aggressively'' searching for a director to head the office.''
Both the Pentagon and Congress agree in principle that rigorous operational testing is essential to developing more reliable and - Ent wants to protect its bureaucratic turf against congressional ''meddling'' in the weapons development process.
Intertwined with this battle is another power struggle. The new law requires the testing office to provide Congress with information about operational testing of major weapons systems. Previously, the Pentagon could tightly control the flow of such data to Congress.
Politics aside, the Defense Department has 86 ''major'' weapons systems under way at present and the testing office is supposed to be reviewing a number of them. Even with a director and a full staff, this would be a daunting duty. Without either, the office cannot do its job.
Congress has enacted a law and the Pentagon is legally obligated to carry it out. A first step, long overdue, would be for President Reagan to nominate a director of the operational testing office for the Senate's approval as soon as Congress reconvenes.