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Pentagon Un-Reform Sweeps through Washington September 15, 2009

Posted by Guest Blogger in Analysis.
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Guest Blog

This is the fourth posting in a series of guest blogs that BFAD is featuring each Tuesday.  This week features Winslow T. Wheeler, Director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information.  

Pentagon Un-Reform Sweeps through Washington

by Winslow T. Wheeler

People who observe the Pentagon say at this blog and elsewhere that they see reform in the actions of Secretary of Defense Gates and in bills coming out of Congress.  It reminds me of the House Judiciary Committee’s proceedings when they prepared to impeach Richard Nixon in 1974.  Then Representative William Hungate (D-OH) famously said that “if someone brought an elephant through that door and I said ‘That’s an elephant,’ [the Republicans] would say, ‘That’s an inference. It could be a mouse with a glandular condition.’ ”   In today’s delusion-riddled atmosphere in Washington, they are parading vermin rodents through the door, and the pundits are declaring them all to be priceless mink and sable.

Consider the evidence.  I’ll do the easy part first.  That would be Congress.  The big pretend reform push came in the form of the Weapon System Acquisition Reform Act of 2009, proudly signed into law by President Obama in May. The bill was written by the bipartisan leadership of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, and not a single Member of Congress voted against it—in itself a suspicious sign.

As originally written by Senators Carl Levin (D-MI) and John McCain (R-AZ), the bill was hopelessly cosmetic.  For instance, the legislation, as drafted, created a new, independent Director of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation to replace the Pentagon’s existing in-house cost shop. This new cost czar’s estimates were declared to be the end of DOD’s use of phony, understated price tags to gain approval for weapon programs in their early stages. In reality, the bill did not force the Pentagon to actually use the cost czar’s estimates. The result: DOD’s decision makers remain completely free to ignore the new czar, just as they have been ignoring previous independent cost estimates for decades.

Other parts of the bill actually got worse as it proceeded through Congress.  The bill sought to require the Pentagon to buy competing prototypes of each new weapon. That is, it promised reform through “competitive fly before buy,” a practice that has consistently resulted in better weapons at a lower price on the few occasions that it has been honestly tried.  However, Levin and McCain’s tepid wording provided the Pentagon’s managers with a gapping loophole, permitting them to waive the burdensome competition requirement simply by invoking “critical”—but undefined—“national security objectives.” Dissatisfied with this free pass, others in Congress added a new loophole that left managers free to compete a subsystem instead of having to compete the entire weapon.  And in case that was too onerous, they added yet another: if managers declare that contracting for competitive subsystems would increase costs, they can ignore the competition requirement altogether.

As originally written in the Senate, the bill actually ended the practice, now rife, of permitting contractors to conduct the Pentagon’s official reviews of their own programs.  Too much for the Senate and House Armed Services Committee, the text was changed to instruct the Pentagon to write any contractor self-review regulation it pleases, subject only to the vaguest legislative guidance.

It goes on and on throughout the bill; no where is there an important, needed requirement unaccompanied by a Mack Truck loophole and/or permission to waive the entire thing if any bureaucrat feels the discomfort of a single pea beneath him.

Congress’ behavior in its annual funding bills, the DOD authorization and appropriations legislation, is every bit as atrocious as it has been in the past.  Reform there is as dead as a doornail.  Consider not just the pork that the House and Senate Armed Services and Appropriations Committees add to bills but how they pay for it.

The Senate Armed Services Committee added a few hundred earmarks costing $9 billion in its bill, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense.  The House Armed Services Committee added $2.26 billion for 502 earmarks. The House Appropriations Committee added 1,116 earmarks costing $2.75 billion.  As always, each of these committees did not increase spending in their bills to pay for this pork; instead, they raided other parts of the legislation.  The most popular “bill payer” is the Operations and Maintenance account – the part of the Pentagon budget that pays for training, weapons maintenance, fuel, food, – all the things you need in war. The SASC cut O&M by $2 billion; the HASC also cut it by $2 billion; the HAC cut it by $2.3 billion.

The Senate Appropriations Committee is just now finished with its version of the bill.  The goriest of the details will not be known until the committee’s report is available, but it is already abundantly clear it is not departing from the pattern of the other committees; billions of dollars in pork paid for by raids on other parts of the bill, especially the readiness accounts.

And what of those “sweeping reforms” breathlessly announced by the New York Times after SecDef Gates’ dramatic decisions on 50 DOD programs last April?  On a few, such as the T-SAT space program and the CSAR helicopter, no one put up much of a fight.  Gates won.  On those programs where the manufacturers and their pawns in Congress decided to resist, Gates’ record is not so good.

Once he finally realized he had a giant fight on his hands on the F-22, with White House help Gates beat back Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) after a huge – but very laudable – struggle.  But on many other prominent programs, he is losing.  On the C-17, Gates capitulated early – in May – when his spokesman gave a pass to eight more C-17s in the Iraq/Afghanistan supplemental.  Now he will get another ten from the Senate, thanks to Diane Feinstein and Barbara Boxer (both D-CA).  The Chairmen of the House and Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittees, Congressman John Murtha (D-PA) and Senator Daniel Inouye (D-HI), are also giving Gates a lesson on the staying power of pork.  Murtha slathered in the VH-71 presidential helicopter, the alternative F-35 engine, and the Kinetic Energy Interceptor, and Inouye took the brazen step of fostering more F-22s as candidates for foreign sales – but only after a new and expensive modification program.  Gates and Obama have another fight on their hands (even bigger than the F-22 tumble last July) if the House-Senate conference to resolve these pork differences is to become anything other than a veritable festival of adding the pork lists together, rather than dropping them.

Congress continues to be a part of the problem, not of the solution.

OK, so there’s hope for some internal reform inside the Pentagon, right?

First, consider the Pentagon’s interaction with the Weapon System Acquisition Reform Act of 2009, discussed above.  Virtually every weakening of the already hopelessly cosmetic bill was sought, even demanded by the Pentagon, specifically by its Deputy Secretary of Defense, former Raytheon lobbyist William J. Lynn III – the same individual who is heading up the Department’s implementation of the loophole ridden bill.

Second, consider Gates’ preferred alternative to the hopelessly overpriced and underperforming F-22, the F-35. That aircraft is now very much overweight, underperforming even more than the F-22, behind schedule and getting worse, and growing fast in cost. Gates’ plan for it basically ignores all this and seeks to rush ahead and buy 500 of them before the definitive flight test report lands on his desk. By endorsing a program so obviously laden with the same old problems, Gates is ensuring a rerun of the F-22 fiasco, and he is keeping business as usual well ensconced.

Beyond this “joint service” F-35 mess, the military services are nurturing other debacles. The Navy has its obscenely expensive, mindlessly gold-plated Zumwalt destroyer, in addition to a more than doubled in cost Littoral Combat Ship that continues in production – testing uncompleted. The Army is busy re-birthing the Future Combat Systems program, a baroque “system of systems” edifice intended to link together many expensive and unworkable technologies that pretend to remove the “fog of war” from the battlefield. Not to be left behind, the Marine Corps is fighting back against critics of its high cost, underperforming V-22 “tiltrotor” that has killed more US Marines than it has enemies in Iraq or Afghanistan.  The Air Force lusts after a real doozey: an unmanned nuclear bomber.

Is there any ray of hope?  Perhaps.  Talking to the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Phoenix in August, President Obama said “… if Congress sends me a defense bill loaded with this kind of waste, I will veto it.”

If?

A veto of the pork-grizzled, readiness-retarding, acquisition-deformed defense spending legislation he is about to receive from Congress would be the most pro-defense action by an American president since Abraham Lincoln fired General George McClellan for his bad case of the “slows” in the Civil War.  Such a veto would clearly signal that we have finally sunk to the ultimate depths, and it is time to start to fix it – for real.

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