The missiles U.S. pilots would fire in kill-or-be-killed dogfights have become too expensive for practice.
An Air Force pilot often goes through his whole fighter plane career without firing a real missile, while his Navy counterpart fires one every two years.
A congressman who has conducted a study of the situation calls it "unconscionable" to expect pilots to risk their lives in combat with missiles they have never had a chance to fire.
The Pentagon admits it is a problem but says the solution is to move faster on simulators that would let pilots and others play "Star Wars" on the ground.
Both sides of the argument agree that the soaring cost of missiles has priced pilots out of the old-fashioned target range kind of training.
The cheapest missile for dogfighting in the American inventory is the heat-seeking Sidewinder, costing $60,000 apiece. The Navy's Phoenix air-to-air missile costs about $1 million each. In between is the radar-directed Sparrow at $86,000.
William J. Perry, Pentagon research director, conceded that is a lot of money for one shot. But he said there is no cheap substitute "unless you want to lose the battle."
He called it "a myth" that the Soviet Union has the better, cheaper idea in modern missiles. Theirs have become as expensive as ours, said Perry.
Rep. Jack Edwards (R-Ala.), who conducted a study of air-to-air missiles as a member of the House defense appropriations subcommittee, shook his head incredulously in discussing the arrival of weapons, "too good to use.
"I just think it's unconscionable to ask pilots to go into battle with missiles they've never had a chance to fire.
"The Pentagon will tell you they've got simulators. But I just think a pilot should know how it feels, how his plane reacts when a missile is fired. I often wonder how much I would have lost if as a Marine I would have had to settle for seeing light bulbs flash on rather than actually fire my rifle at the range.
"Until we find a training round," said Edwards, "we've just got to fire some of these things." He said the Pentagon should let pilots train with older air-to-air missiles in the process of being replaced.
Other sources said that one reason the Pentagon does not allow pilots to use missiles for practice is that there is an embarrassing shortage of them, including only about one-third of the AIM7 Sparrows that planners have said should be on hand for F15 fighters.
Edward and other critics of Pentagon buying practices said that missiles have lost out as generals and admirals spend a disproportionate amount of money on new airplanes. They warn these planes could not fight for many days with the missiles now available.
Some pilots complain the missile shortage is worse than that shown on the secret inventory sheets because of the Pentagon's overly optimistic "probability of kill ratio," or PK. That PK ratio, rounded off, assumes that it would take only two missiles to destroy an enemy aircraft in a dogfight.
Air Force data from the Vietnam war show it took an average of 11 AIM7 Sparrow missiles to kill each Mig in dogfights between 1965 and 1973. The kill ratio for AIM9 Sidewinders averaged 5.5 missiles per Mig. 1The Pentagon is evidently relying on unproved technology to improve the ratio in any next war.
Perry, as under secretary of defense for research and engineering, plays a major role in deciding what weapons should be developed and which ones should be put into production. He said he could not make a judgment on the adequacy of the missile inventory until he examined the assumptions underlying the planning figures.
But Perry said he had done a lot of thinking about how to give pilots realistic training in dogfighting without firing expensive missiles.
"It's a problem," he conceded, which is not as easy to solve as making sure the missiles will work once fired. He said on-going tests make him feel confident about the missiles.
"It would be a nice thing to do to allow the pilots to fire more of these missiles," said Perry. "But to tell you the truth, I'm really not all that impressed with that as a major problem."
He contended that adding a missile firing to the air-to-air combat training pilots already receive "adds something" but not much since the missile would have to be shot "at some phoney target, not an airplane."
He said Red Flag exercises, where U.S. and simulated Soviet aircraft duel in the sky, already provide realistic training for maneuvering and learning when to fire. And the Pentagon intends to build on that, said Perry.
"What we can do very much better," said the research chief, "is simulating the firing of missiles under combat conditions."
The idea, he said, would be to put a pilot in a trainer on the ground where he would feel the gravitational pulls as he maneuvered and the wrench of the plane as the missile blasted off the frame.
The pilot would then watch his missile whoosh toward the enemy plane on a movie screen, and see enemy tracer bullets and missiles coming at him as well.
Perry said the Pentagon already is working on such simulators for pilots and hopes to have realistic ones available within two years.
The high cost of antitank missiles also means soldiers fire them only rarely in training. Perry said the Pentagon wants to build better simulators for them, too, with one idea to put "Star Wars" type games in the barracks. CAPTION: Picture 1, Jet fighter fires a heat-seeking Sidewinder missile. At $60,000 each, it's one of the cheapest in the U.S. arsenal. North American Aviation Inc.; Picture 2, Rep. Jack Edwards