In the past 18 months, the Navy has deployed hundreds of antiship missiles with wiring defects that some officials fear may cause them to fail in combat. It also deployed 1,300 missiles, intended to find and destroy enemy radars, with substandard soldering and uncertain ability to withstand high heat.

In addition, it purchased more than 370 missiles at a cost of nearly $1 million each that Navy pilots need for aerial combat. But instead of going aboard warplanes, the missiles were stored in warehouses near Tucson because a key part is defective.

Congressional sources and independent analysts say the reason for these problems, described in a recent draft report by the General Accounting Office (GAO), is lax program management, poor oversight and, above all, a surprising Navy emphasis on "pushing sophisticated weapons out the door" as quickly as possible despite potentially serious defects.

"One must inquire after reading this report whether the Pentagon is more interested in procuring new systems than having ones that work," said Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on oversight and investigations that ordered the GAO report.

"This says to me that {the Pentagon} can't seem to control the procurement system either as to price or performance. They can't seem to correct abuses even when they are pointed out to them. They are extraordinarily secretive about failures to meet deadlines and contract dates . . . They are more interested in looking out for the contractor than they are in the performance of the weapons system," Dingell said.

Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger has sharply challenged such criticism, and characterized the issue in an interview with Cable News Network as "nothing more" than "a few quality problems with a few of the {Navy} missiles."

"This would not be unusual, but it certainly is not excusable," Weinberger said. "We wouldn't tolerate anything of that kind because . . . we have to be able to rely on these weapons." The Sparrow and Phoenix air-to-air missiles, the HARM antiradar missile and the Harpoon antiship missile mentioned in the report are deployed with U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf, Pentagon officials said.

The GAO report said its interviewers found that the service brass, fighter pilots and ships' crews all think that the principal missile systems are "generally performing well."

"We have some things to work out," said one senior Defense Department official familiar with the missile programs. "But the sky is not falling."

But critics said the 101-page report suggested that abuses have outlasted recent attempts at reform. "It does seem there is a continuing need to put out fires over there," said a GAO investigator.

The report found that a major problem is the sheer difficulty of producing complex weapons. For example, Navy officials told the GAO that defects in the Phoenix were partly due to an overcomplicated design, which made assembly too difficult.

The number of soldering "joints" in just the guidance and control systems of the four missiles vary between 21,000 and 35,000, the report said. Soldering defects were a major reason for the report's conclusion that some of the weapons could fail.

The report also said contractors and Navy managers failed to demand top performance from each of several thousand suppliers. "Subcontracted parts were involved in every instance we identified where a quality problem was not discovered until after defective or potentially defective missiles were accepted by the government," the report said.

"Subcontractor control is a problem," a Navy executive director for weapons reliability, maintainability and quality assurance told the GAO.

In one case, a Defense Department inspector acknowledged he "probably" did not inspect an $8 detonator produced by a subcontractor for the Sparrow missile "even though he signed and {stamped} the {manufacturer's} respective shipping documents."

The GAO said the inspector complained that his workload was "too high" and, as a result, the Pentagon did not learn the detonators might fail until after it had installed them in more than 10,000 missiles that were loaded aboard U.S. aircraft and mobile air-defense vehicles.

The Navy said it has screened and repaired all but 347 "low-risk" missiles, which will be checked as aircraft carriers complete their current tours of duty.

A third problem was a reluctance to conduct needed tests or report useful test data once the weapons are built. The Navy has a program to check stockpiled weapons, for example, but according to the report it failed to check HARM or Harpoon missiles because they "were in short supply and could not be taken out of inventory."

The Navy routinely tests and reports on the guidance and control systems of its missiles, but fails to report how often missiles fail during test preparations, according to the GAO. After finding 2,656 minor defects and 38 major flaws when it last disassembled a Phoenix, the Navy decided not to list all defects uncovered by the next disassembly or to rate their significance, the GAO added.

When defects were discovered, the Navy responded in several instances by loosening its official production requirements instead of forcing costly, time-consuming repairs. An official at the Naval Weapons Center in China Lake, Calif., told the GAO that the center had not demanded strict adherence to the Phoenix contract because "it wanted the hardware out the door."

It wanted such speed, the report found, because a version of the Phoenix that was sold to Iranian military under the shah fell into unfriendly hands when the Khomeini regime took power.

In another case, the Greek Navy found and complained about a defect in the wings of Sparrow missiles it was sold, and the Navy swiftly ordered repairs. But similar repairs have not been ordered for all Sparrows in the U.S. arsenal because, a senior Defense Department official asserted, it is a "trivial" problem.Staff writer Molly Moore contributed to this report.