Walter Pincus
Walter Pincus
Fine Print

High cost of a defense label

How can the Pentagon keep $2.5 billion left over from a canceled program sloshing around for “reinvestment by the Army” when Capitol Hill and the White House are worried about Pentagon budget cuts and national security?

How does the Pentagon get to simply hold on to that money without greater scrutiny?

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The food stamp program could not get away with that, nor could the WIC health and nutrition program for women, infants and children, both of which are facing deep cuts.

That $2.5 billion was money the Army once planned to spend between 2013 and 2017 on its Autonomous Navigation System (ANS). The system, begun in 2003, was “to serve as the autonomous navigation system for as many as 13 unmanned vehicle types as part of the FCS [Future Combat System],” according to a Government Accountability Office report released Thursday.

FCS was the ambitious plan during Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s time when funds were flowing to modernize the Army into a “lighter, more agile and more capable combat force,” the GAO said.

Beginning in 2009, however, with war costs creating a growing deficit, the Army shifted priorities and began canceling FCS vehicles. By last year they all had been ended. Meanwhile, the GAO reported, the Army kept ANS research and development going, planning to use it on a “yet-to-be-developed multi-mission unmanned ground vehicle” that could be used to combat improvised explosive devices [IEDs], which remain the main killers in Afghanistan.

Last year, the Army put together a Red Team to compare “the demonstrated capabilities of ANS and six other military and commercial systems,” the GAO said. ANS by that time could have guided unmanned vehicles to “avoid obstacles and follow a leading vehicle through varying terrain” but had no exceptional unique capability.

While about 90 percent of the ANS hardware had been developed, only 75 percent of the computer software was completed. The most advanced capabilities would have been “costly and time consuming,” the GAO reported.

Ultimately, ANS was canceled, although the GAO pointed out that the Army still was researching unmanned vehicle initiatives.

The Army says it expects to take the roughly $2.5 billion meant for ANS and make it “available for fiscal years 2013 to 2017 for reinvestment by the Army.”

But why isn’t that $2.5 billion just not spent?

The money, starting with fiscal 2013, will be “reprogrammed” to pay for other projects that did not appear to be needed enough to be included in the last budget proposal.

Ironically, the Senate Appropriations Committee in its report Friday on the fiscal 2013 Defense Appropriations Bill took issue with this Pentagon penchant to reprogram money after a fiscal year’s budget is sent to Capitol Hill. The panel said it understood necessary budget changes because of shortfalls or war losses, but it said “fiscal discipline is lacking in the budget request.” It found disconcerting “the number of reprogrammings, dollar amounts, and significant increase of requests to start new programs outside the normal budget cycle,” noting that they “do not receive the same level of oversight, scrutiny.”

For example, one recent Pentagon reprogramming request wanted to take $708 million that it did not require this year for private-sector health care under the Pentagon’s Tricare system and use it for other programs. The Senate committee report noted that this wasn’t the first time that had happened. The GAO found that the Pentagon overbudgeted Tricare private-sector care costs by $772 million in fiscal 2010 and a whopping $1.36 billion in fiscal 2011.

For fiscal 2013, the Senate panel cut $807 million from this Tricare category. But the committee in effect did its own reprogramming of those funds by refusing to approve the administration’s request to increase Tricare enrollment fees, which added $273 million to the cost of the program. In addition, as has happened every year since the mid-1990s, money has been set aside for the Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs, which fund private research on breast, prostate and other cancers, this time totaling $304 million.

This is part of the Washington budget game for defense spending. Both the Pentagon and congressional committees often redirect money to their pet projects rather than just not spending the money. National security is always the reason, whatever the program.

The current threat of an unbalanced deficit reduction plan is far more dangerous to the country than the remnants of al-Qaeda, Islamic jihadists or even China.

When the Reagan administration pushed budget cuts it hit programs for the poor and undereducated. It painted minorities who benefited from poverty programs as “welfare queens.”

Perhaps there ought to be more focus on defense contractor salaries.

Robert J. Stevens of Lockheed Martin has received on average about $20 million a year for the past five years as cost overruns of the F-35 fighter program have skyrocketed.

On May 6, Stevens reported selling 391,488 Lockheed shares for $34.2 million. That same day, using Lockheed stock options he had earned in the past, Stevens purchased an equal number — 391,488 — of shares for $24.6 million. Those transactions gave him another $10 million.

If the Reagan years had their government-created welfare queens, this past decade has seen the enrichment of Pentagon-supported “warfare millionaires.”

We can’t afford to continue pouring money mindlessly into everything with a defense label.

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

 
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