Operational testing began almost as soon as the Wright Brothers sold their first airplane. By the time the United States entered World War I, the Allies had designed, built and tested some of the aircraft later proven in battle, over the trenches.
However, because of tight budgets in the Great Depression, the US only developed and bought new aircraft in small numbers as experimental or prototypes.
In May 1941, the Army Air Corps created the Air Proving Ground, at Eglin Field in Florida. During World War II, the command conducted more than 2,800 tests. However, due to the urgency of wartime needs, these tests rarely informed production adjustments, as the US produced material and equipment, and fielded it, as fast as it could.
Shortly after World War II, in 1947, the Air Force became an independent service. One of its first major commands was the Air Proving Ground Command.
By the time it was abolished in 1957, Air Proving Ground Command had grown to more than 11,000 personnel. However, because of the Cold War, and DoD’s focus on speed of acquisition, it did not effectively influence operational design, or acquisition decisions.
From 1958 to 1974, the Air Force relied on major command testing. Since major commands served as both the developer, and user of the systems, some pointed to a lack of objectivity.
System performance in Vietnam did little to alleviate those perceptions. As examples, the F-111 lost 3 of 6 aircraft on its first deployment. The F-105, designed as a supersonic nuclear fighter bomber, was found to be inappropriate for many of the missions in Vietnam. Finally, in a sample of 22 weapon systems, deployed to Southeast Asia from 1965 to 1970, Department of Defense studies found all but one suffered major deficiencies in the field. Some concluded the lack of operational test played a role.
As a result, more studies were conducted. In a July 1970 report, a Blue Ribbon Defense Panel published its findings. In 1971, then-Deputy Secretary of Defense, David Packard, published his “fly before buy” memo, which defined Initial Operational Test and Evaluation as a way to provide data for acquisition decisions. He required that operational test and evaluations be conducted by independent test agencies that reported directly to their service chiefs. Finally, he emphasized the value of operational test with production-representative systems.
In January 1974, the Air Force Test and Evaluation Center was activated at Kirtland AFB, N.M., and in 1983, the Air Force added “Operational” to the name .
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