Former Fighter Pilot Denny Smith Takes Aim at the Army's Sergeant York, the Gun That Couldn't Shoot Straight

updated 08/26/1985 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/26/1985 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Congressman Denny Smith considers himself a connoisseur of antiaircraft guns. "I've had a chance to check out air-defense systems from a consumer standpoint," he says, smiling, "as a target."

Smith, 47, flew 180 combat missions through hazardous flak as an F-4 Phantom fighter-bomber pilot in Vietnam from 1965 to 1966. Now, in his third term as a Republican Congressman from Oregon, he is fighting a different sort of battle, gunning for a Pentagon program that he deems a waste of taxpayers' money and a threat to U.S. servicemen's lives: the Sergeant York division air-defense gun.

Since military sources—many of them Smith's friends from his Vietnam days—began tipping him off about the weapon's shortcomings two years ago, Smith has led the charge against what is, at about $6 million apiece, the most expensive gun ever built. The armored, self-propelled, radar-directed, twin-barreled 40-mm cannons rely on complex computers that could probably bounce enemy pilots' checks and send them erroneous phone bills all at the same time. But they can't seem to bring down their targets.

During one early test, the cannon homed in on the attendant Army brass, who dove for cover in the reviewing stand. At another tryout, a helicopter target whirled and waited while the Sergeant York's computers drew a bead on a bathroom fan in a nearby building. Yet, more than $1 billion has already been spent on the development and production of 146 Sergeant Yorks, and the Army plans to spend $3 billion more for another 472 of the weapons. Hoping to satisfy Smith and other vociferous critics, Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger ordered further tests for Sergeant York last June.

The prime contractor, Ford Aerospace & Communications Corp., whose employees helped run the $54 million test, proclaimed the weapon "destroyed six of seven high-performance aircraft and three of three helicopters."

Even Congressman Smith was impressed at first. "I got a call from the test site," he recalls, "and the guy, who was a friend of mine, said, 'Boy, it's really spectacular, that mother just blew 'em out of the air.' "

The Army proudly forwarded Smith a 10-minute edited videotape, comprising the greatest hits of the four-day test, which shows the Sergeant York blasting the hapless drones from the sky. But, Smith learned, "The planes were blown up by the range-safety officer on the testing ground. A button simply touches off charges in each airplane." The Army has since admitted this but denies any attempt to deceive. The drones were detonated in midair for safety reasons, according to the Army. Officers maintain that the targets were crippled by fragments from shells exploding close by before they were detonated.

"These drones were being flown at a 'suicide' elevation of 400 or 500 feet," rather than at treetop level like real attackers, Smith observes. "They were flying straight and level at about 400 knots, no 'jinking' from side to side to spoil the gunners' aim. What you had was a shooting gallery. Even then, there were no direct hits scored—none.

"What they've got is a dumb weapon," Smith continues. "This program should be dead. In any businesslike situation, the managers would have cut their losses long ago."

Smith's attacks on the Sergeant York have drawn fire from the Army. Smith "is not doing this for the good of the nation," Sergeant York proponent Maj. Gen. James Maloney has said. Smith responds that the general decided "a Congressman is easier to hit than those target drones, so he's turning his guns on me."

But Smith is not politically gun-shy. In 1980 he took on the "unbeatable" 12-term Congressman Al Ullman and won—campaigning on his war record and his hard-nosed defense and economic policies. "The fact is I certainly want to have a strong defense as much as the next person," Smith says.

Secretary Weinberger, who has stated that the recent Sergeant York trials were "the most realistic operational testing that we ever put a weapon system through," is to decide by the end of the month whether to continue or cancel the weapon's production.

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