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Billions for Pentagon Failures

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/09/waxman_1.jpgRep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) (WDCpix)

In 1995, Army Maj. Gen. Robert H. Scales was playing war games in order to determine what military combat might look like in 25 years. In the process, he created “Future Combat Systems,” a weapons system made up of unmanned ground and air vehicles that would be directed by computers at an Army base.

Thirteen years later, the technology to realize Scales’ vision still isn’t available. That hasn’t stopped the Pentagon from spending more than $20 billion for Boeing, SAIC and 550 other contractors and subcontractors to work on “Future Combat Systems.” The original contract estimated the total cost at $15 billion.


Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

Paul L. Francis, Government Accountability Office’s director of acquisitions, told The Washington Post in December that the weapons system is finally making progress. “They’re getting to the point that they should have been at in 2003,” Francis said.

Future Combat Systems is one of 95 Pentagon weapons programs that have resulted in $295 billion in cost overruns, according to a GAO report released last month. A congressional hearing Tuesday about the report made clear that uncontrolled Pentagon spending is a decades-old problem that may take just as long to reverse.

But the problem has grown worse over the past 10 years with the creation of of programs based on unrealized technology, like “Future Combat Systems.” These post-Cold War programs were based on still-undeveloped technology and were, until now, subject to little Pentagon or congressional oversight.

If the bipartisan frustration at the hearing affects this year’s defense budget, these programs could very well end. An oversight committee normally divided along partisan lines found common ground in blasting what Rep. Darrell E. Issa (R-Calif.) called “hope-based” weapons contracting.

“Everyone at the Pentagon has wanted to get into the high-tech game,” said Dina Rasor, founder of the Follow the Money Project, which monitors defense contracts. “There hasn’t been any oversight on this for 10 years.”

Rasor noted that ill-conceived weapons systems have been a problem for far more than a decade. But the Pentagon and Congress have reined in defense contracts less since the late-1990’s, which, Rasor said, allowed the Pentagon “to think of a cool, new technology and then design a threat around it.”

Indeed, the 95 systems that GAO studied increased in total cost from $790 billion in 2000 to $1.5 trillion in 2007 . None of these systems — which range from Air Force fighter planes to Navy combat ships — met “best practices” management guidelines, as outlined by the Pentagon and GAO. Along with running a combined $295 billion over-budget, contract completion on these systems was delayed an average of 21 months.

GAO blamed the cost overruns on the Pentagon rewarding contracts for the development and production of “new and unproven technologies.” Of the weapons acquisitions GAO studied, 88 percent didn’t have the necessary technology to fulfill the contract’s requirements. Along with the technology not being ready, the Pentagon rewarded contracts without the contractor showing a blueprint for the weapons system or a production schedule to complete the contract.

Michael J. Sullivan, director of the GAO’s acquisition and sourcing team, and author of the report, explained the problem Tuesday at a joint hearing of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform and National Security and Foreign Affairs Subcommittee. “A lack of technology design and manufacturing knowledge accounts for the delays of the original estimate to field a weapons system,” Sullivan said. “Each program begins heavy on optimistic assumptions and light on data.”

Sullivan’s assessment provoked unanimous disgust with the Pentagon among committee members.

“This money could run the schools, health cares, prisons and parks throughout the state of Tennessee,” said Rep. John R. Duncan (R-Tenn.), who has previously criticized the Bush administration’s defense policy. “It’s blind patriotism that allows the Pentagon to waste-mega billions.”

Rep. Henry A. Waxman, (D-Calif.) chairman of the oversight committee, focused much of the hearing on a report his staff compiled about the Marine’s Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle. Like the Future Combat Systems, money keeps going to the EFV, which is supposed to be an advanced amphibious tank — though the technology for the tank to operate is not available.

The EFV project, whose main contractor is General Dynamics, began its development process in 2000, but it was so poorly managed that the development started anew in 2007. The additional cost is estimated to be $1.2 billion, and the system’s completion date was pushed back from 2003 to 2011.

The tank’s lack of basic functionality had been warned about in an unsparing 2001 Pentagon audit. The EFV project was called a “paper dream” with “no one steering the ship.”

Waxman said the EFV example is the “rule not the exception” in the systems analyzed by GAO. But the program may have been exceptional in that the Pentagon internally criticized it. The Future Combats System and other programs, on the other hand, received independent audits, only to have the resulting criticisms disputed by the Pentagon.

Lawmakers criticized Pentagon officials James Finley, the deputy undersecretary for acquisition technology, and David Patterson, principle deputy undersecretary of defense for the comptroller, at the hearing for presiding over a weakened Pentagon auditing shop.

During the same time period, Pentagon contracts more than doubled.

Between 1990 and 2005, due to efforts by both the Clinton and Bush administration’s to reduce the number of government employees, the Pentagon’s Contract Management Agency’s staff lost 13,000, or 56 percent of its employees. During the same time period, Pentagon contracts more than doubled. “There has been a huge increase in acquisitions but not the acquisitions workforce,” said Tom Davis (R-Va.), the committee’s ranking Republican.

Finley defended himself by saying that he started in 2006, after the cuts had been made and that he’s looking to find competent program managers for what time remains of President George W. Bush’s term in office. The GAO’s Sullivan said that such turnover is precisely the problem. “The transitory nature of the people at the top,” he said, “is really what keeps people from changing the underlying culture.”

While the GAO and both political parties gave the Pentagon an earful Tuesday, they also focused on the evergreen nature of costly, mismanaged weapons programs. Davis even spoke of delayed shipbuilding during the George Washington administration.

For some reform advocates, such hints of resignation suggest that Congress isn’t willing or able to streamline the defense budget even to take out the most fanciful programs. “The Pentagon needs adult supervision,” said Winslow T. Wheeler, director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information. “But weak-spined politicians are ultimately fearful of being attacked as anti-defense.”

But others say that bipartisan scrutiny could finally threaten the most wasteful contracts contained in the $515.4 billion Pentagon budget that Bush sent to Congress in February “It really helps in Congress, if these issues are bipartisan,” said Nick Schwellenbach, an investigator at the Project on Government Oversight. “Democrats had to reform welfare and it takes a Republican to reform national security.”

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