Judging by the numbers of counterfeit bolts in the Pentagon's hardware inventory, the U.S. war machine is held together by no better than chicken wire and duct tape.

An internal Pentagon report reveals that cheap bolts made from weak metals have found their way into the military stockpiles in alarming numbers.

Many of the backup machine screws used to fasten wing parts on the Navy's Corsair A-7 attack jets are fakes, substandard imitations of what the Pentagon thought it was buying. The same weak screws are used in the Army's Apache helicopters and Tomahawk missiles.

We have been warning for years that foreign manufacturers were passing off weak bolts as the real thing. Congress passed a bill in its last session to stop the traffic. But the Pentagon is just now figuring out how many of those bolts it bought and used before the brass realized it was being fleeced.

The revelations about the spread of bogus bolts through the military appear in a Defense Department inspector general report obtained by our associate Jim Lynch.

Pentagon investigators estimate that 62 percent of the hardware in the military's "ready-to-issue" inventory does not meet the required strength and size demands. The investigators took samples and then projected that at least $624 million in hardware on hand does not meet safety standards. It is junk that could fail and kill American soldiers.

In the past three years, about 100 firms have been prosecuted for selling bogus fasteners and for falsifying tests. But industry sources say that it will take another year to feel the full enforcement effect of the new consumer protection law. Meanwhile, distributors are scrambling to dump their bogus bolts on the market.

"It's dump time," warned Tommy Grant of Grant Fasteners Inc. in Houston. Grant is the leader of a pack of honest bolt makers who forced the issue onto Congress's front burner with the help of Reps. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), James H. Bilbray (D-Nev.) and Helen Delich Bentley (R-Md.). Many U.S. manufacturers were run out of business by the cheaper foreign fasteners before buyers in America caught on to why the foreign products were cheaper.

The counterfeit glut affects more than just the military. A recent General Accounting Office report determined that almost two-thirds of the nation's nuclear power plants bought fasteners that don't meet safety standards. Bogus fasteners have also surfaced at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Energy Department and other federal agencies.

Fraud is rampant because it is easy. The bad bolts can't be detected by the eye. Expensive metallurgical tests are needed, and the test results in some cases have been faked. The Defense inspector general recommends that the Pentagon implement a rigid testing policy, including testing the bolts it gets from reputable manufacturers.

The Pentagon's supply system is so disorganized that it has been known to throw out bad bolts and then buy them back again. Last year a California firm was convicted of falsifying tests and selling bad bolts to the government. The company had picked up many of the bolts at military surplus auctions.