When Congress imposed a law six years ago to improve the management of the military's multibillion-dollar weapons programs, it got an unexpected reaction from the Pentagon.

Instead of lengthening tours of duty in the crucial management jobs -- as mandated by law -- the services allowed program managers to stay on the job for even shorter tenures.

"In 1984, they {managers} averaged only 25 months on the job," said Rep. Nicholas Mavroules (D-Mass.), chairman of the House Armed Services investigations subcommittee. "Today they average only 21 months. Some improvement!"

The law requires program managers of weapons such as the Air Force B-1 bomber and the Army M-1 Abrams tank to remain at their posts four years, with few exceptions. The investigations panel found that of the 94 program managers who have served since the law was imposed, five remained on the job at least 48 months. Only five others met the requirements of the law for early release from their jobs, the report said.

"Bluntly, the services broke the law 89 percent of the time," said Mavroules, whose committee report was titled, "Life Is Too Short: A review of the brief periods managers of major defense acquisition programs stay on the job."

"The services are simply ignoring the law," charged Rep. Larry J. Hopkins (R-Ky.), ranking Republican on the investigations subcommmittee. "With only 21 months on the job, they barely have time to find where the executive washroom is."

Does the Defense Department dispute the findings?

"No, not at all," said a spokeswoman, adding, "We know the law is on the books. We're trying hard to work on the spirit of the law."

The spokeswoman said Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney recognized the problem last year in a review of the Pentagon's acquisition system and has ordered the services to establish a dedicated corps of officers will full-time career acquisition specialities.

Mavroules, chagrined at the services' "abysmal record" in complying with the law, said he will combat the problem by proposing a new law. He has introduced legislation that would create a professionalized acquisition work force and corps within the military.

"With this emphasis, we are facing the fact that many of our acquisition problems can be traced back to inadequate oversight, poor decision-making and improper implementation of laws," Mavroules said.

Both Congress and Cheney have blamed some of the problems of the military's acquisition system on the practice of shuffling officers through the jobs without allowing them adequate time to learn and improve the program they are managing.

But the report also noted that since World War II no less than six special commissions have proposed lengthening the tenure of program managers as a way of reforming the military's weapons-buying system.

"Program tenure is not a panacea for the problems of the acquisition system," the congressional review said, adding, "But . . . time spent actually doing rather than learning the job can only help improve the management of multibillion-dollar systems."

The report blamed all branches of the military for ignoring the law: "The statute has simply been flouted by all the services." Only the methods have varied, according to the study.

The Navy, said the study, "has largely ignored the law outright" by routinely reassigning officers. The Air Force's chief abuse "has been in the retirement category," with more than 40 percent of its program managers retiring short of the four-year requirement. One retired after six months on the job, the report found. The Army abused the law by using acting, or temporary managers to fill the job. One acting manager stayed on the job 10 months, the report said.

The report found that the Army's Stinger shoulder-fired missile program has had four managers in six years: Two served as "acting" managers, one retired and other was promoted. The Navy's SSN-688 nuclear attack submarine program has had three managers, as has the Air Force's Maverick missile program.

There were a handful of exceptions, the report noted, including the Army's new light helicopter program, whose manager has been on the job 69 months, and Navy's amphibious ship acquisition program, whose chief has served 61 months.

The rapid turnover is due partially to the military system of "ticket-punching" -- cycling successful officers through a variety of programs to give them a broad range of experience in several arenas of the military. In many cases, the more successful an officer is, the more rapidly he or she is moved in and out of jobs.

That led to Cheney's proposal for creating a "separate but equal" career path for individuals in the acquisition field, allowing them to advance within the weapons-buying world. Pentagon officials said, however, that reform efforts have been in effect only since January and said it is too early to judge whether the program is succeeding.

Mavroules said he hopes to speed that effort with his legislation, noting that the subcommittee "wishes to put the services on notice that it will monitor compliance closely and expects a dramatic change in the sorry record since enactment of the 1984 law."