For a reminder of how much money is sloshing around within the Defense Department, read the Senate Armed Services Committee’s 514-page report on the fiscal 2013 defense authorization bill, which was released Tuesday.
Despite complaints about belt tightening — and God forbid any further reductions come from across-the-board cuts mandated by sequestration — the committee found hundreds of millions of dollars to move around from one program to another in approving $525.8 billion for the department’s core budget. By the way, that is $500 million above President Obama’s request, although the panel made up part of that by cutting $300 million from the separate $88.5 billion requested for overseas operations such as the fighting in Afghanistan.
Let’s start with cost overruns. Does any other branch of government get away with having its programs balloon the way Pentagon weapons systems do, with no end in sight?
The best example is the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter, the planned 2,443 fifth-generation stealth fighter-bombers that the country could be buying for the next 20 years. In the push to get the first planes, there was — according to the project’s executive officer quoted in the report — a “miscalculation.” That miscalculation was concurrency — the overlap between developing advanced, complex avionics and computer systems for the F-35 and testing them while at the same time beginning production. It has cost taxpayers an additional $7.9 billion and delayed overall development by almost three years.
And concurrency costs are not over. The report notes that the panel refused to reprogram about $771 million to pay for those costs on the first three lots of F-35s. Where did the Pentagon find that cash? “From other [Defense Department] programs,” said the report. An additional $523 million concurrency cost is coming on the fourth-bloc purchase of F-35s. Where will that money be found?
Of course, when the House looked for additional funds for its defense spending bill, it took money from welfare and other programs for the poor. And now congressional Republicans want to fund lower interest rates for college loans by slicing state Medicaid reimbursements or by increasing federal workers’ retirement payments.
Only the Defense Department can find big sums by squeezing its own programs. The Pentagon could find about $188 million next year to help pay for the F-35 overruns by accepting an amendment by Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) to limit spending on military bands to $200 million a year, a proposal in the House-passed fiscal 2013 authorization bill. The Senate helped kill a similar McCollum amendment last year, and its Armed Services Committee refused to deal with it this year. But the committee found a lot of loose Pentagon money.
For example, it found $97 million in the Army account used to buy 30mm and 40mm ammunition for a variety of weapons. The Government Accountability Office, in a private study for the panel, predicted the rate of use for the rounds and determined that the Army was asking $37 million too much for 30mm ammunition in 2013 because of a pricing change. In addition, it found that $75 million in excess 40mm ammo from 2011 was returned to the Army Budget Office to be reprogrammed. Instead, the panel said, it could be used “to cover the Army’s entire fiscal year 2013 procurement budget request for 40mm ammunition,” which was $60.1 million.