A Pentagon enemy: Uncertainty

Walter Pincus
Reporter October 16, 2013

The last-minute plan to avoid default and reopen the government will prolong bringing sanity to defense spending.

Defense Department budget experts are working on their own plan for the 2015-to-2019 Future Years Defense Program “with absolutely no idea what we’re going to be doing in 2014, if and when we end this shutdown and get to start executing 2014 [spending].”

Walter Pincus reports on intelligence, defense and foreign policy for The Washingon Post. He first came to the paper in 1966 and has covered numerous subjects, including nuclear weapons and arms control, politics and congressional investigations. He was among Post reporters awarded the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting. View Archive

That’s Jamie M. Morin, who testified last Thursday before the Senate Armed Services Committee as the nominee for director of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation. CAPE is the Pentagon’s unit that provides independent analytic cost assessments of current and future military programs, along with development of the FYDP.

His problems won’t go away unless Congress by some miracle — before the new Jan. 15 deadline — comes up with a fiscal 2014 Pentagon budget that promises some stability.

Morin, who is currently an assistant secretary of the Air Force, told the senators, “One of the key reasons that our Department of Defense is the envy of the world and our military establishment is the envy of the world is the really robust planning, programming, budgeting, execution process that we use.”

But, he frankly added, “I think the [current] instability really puts at risk that entire, well-articulated, effective set of institutions that strive to squeeze that maximum amount of combat capability out of each taxpayer dollar. It’s doing enormous and untold damage to the institution.”

Michael Lumpkin, slated to become assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict, described the sequester — the across-the-board cuts required in fiscal 2013 discretionary defense spending — as endangering the projected slowly planned growth of Special Operations Command from 65,000 to 71,000 personnel. That’s accompanied by increases in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance equipment and other support elements.

“Special operations cannot be mass-produced. It’s not one of those things that you can just run it on and off, like a light switch. It takes time and there’s a significant process that goes to making a special operator,” said Lumpkin, a former Navy SEAL. “I have real concerns about the morale of both our armed forces and the federal workers, based on the current climate.”

Jo Ann Rooney, nominated to be Navy undersecretary, had a different issue. Asked whether the Navy would uphold its legal obligation to meet financial audit deadlines set for 2014 and 2017, she said she couldn’t make that determination because there was “the inability to make sure that there is the appropriate hiring to fill those slots.” In addition, she noted, it’s “also the uncertainty with our people in being able to allow them to sit back and think on a time horizon that is longer term with certainty.”

A personnel specialist, Rooney said so much uncertainty among key people could lead to many decamping for private industry because they “just can’t face that uncertainty.”

It’s not as if the Pentagon was great at handling its budget over the past decade.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) started the hearing off, however, by criticizing Congress for providing “the government with precious little certainty about future funding, which has caused untold amounts of scrapped planning, administrative double work and waste.”

He described the sequester as creating “budgetary instability that is causing well-performing programs to be cut, program officials to be furloughed and readiness accounts to be plundered.”

He was just as tough on the Pentagon, referring to “systematic departmental shortcomings which contribute to a ‘culture of inefficiency’ that is robbing war fighters of reliable equipment and absolutely failing taxpayers.”

No one is as good as McCain when he’s warmed up on Pentagon spending.

“After more than a decade of profligate spending and lax internal oversight, senior defense leaders must now impel cultural change throughout the department regarding procurement practices, financial improvement and business transformation,” he said last Thursday.

He cited costs of constructing the new CVN-78, the $12.8 billion USS Gerald R. Ford nuclear aircraft carrier and the Littoral Combat Ships, now $448 million each, as “only the most recent examples of programs that have been undertaken without regard for affordability or for what our combatant commanders and service members actually need.”

In an era of declining budgets, McCain said, “We simply cannot afford to pour treasure into programs that underperform, deliver unreliable capability or for which we are unable to determine lifecycle costs.” He finished by adding that “cost estimates prepared by the [military] services for major weapon systems have historically proved inaccurate.”

There is plenty of blame to pass around for today’s fiscal cliff and for yesterday’s Pentagon excesses. The real question is whether this latest crisis has forced enough people in Congress and the executive branch to settle down and work out their differences so Defense budget planners can get to work.

The public at large is watching — and yet another clock will begin ticking once President Obama signs whatever measure reaches his desk.

For previous Fine Print columns, go to washingtonpost.com/fedpage.

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