Slack budgeting at Defense

Walter Pincus
Reporter June 6, 2012

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.

What other government department has $75 million left over from last year that hasn’t been already put to another use because of budget cuts?

Or how about the ammunition for the Excalibur 155mm precision-guided extended-range artillery round? It is designed to use the Global Positioning System to guide it to targets out of the normal artillery shell range, hitting armored vehicles or reinforced bunkers. The Army requested $110.3 million to procure these shells in fiscal 2013 but more recently told the committee there was a scheduling delay. So the panel cut $55 million from the request.

An additional $14.3 million was picked up out of the Army’s overall fiscal 2013 request of $1.7 billion from ammunition for the Spider network program. Spider is part of the Army’s new anti-personnel land-mine program. Unlike traditional land mines, a Spider can be recovered and redeployed and even deactivates itself after a set time. But the Pentagon’s director of operational test and evaluation “expressed concerns” about the system, and so the committee cut all but $3.1 million from the original Army request of $17.4 million.

There are scores of other examples to be found in the committee report. The panel cut $30 million from an airborne and maritime fixed radio program because it was unlikely that the equipment would be ready for integration into Army helicopters before 2014.

You may ask what happens to these reductions — $30 million here, $55 million there. Most often the funds go to programs that committee members like and the Pentagon does not. The panel, as proposed by Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and others, added $91 million to keep open plants working on the M1A2 Abrams tank program, a production line that the Pentagon wanted to close. One plant is in Lima, Ohio.

Congress has pet projects, illustrated by the $100 million the panel added to the $98.5 million requested by the administration for three U.S.-Israeli cooperative missile defense programs. It’s a step the House had already taken. Also, the panel authorized an additional $210 million for Israel’s Iron Dome short-range rocket defense system in anticipation of an administration request for such funding. The $310 million that the Senate committee added is on top of $3.1 billion in military assistance annually provided Israel in other legislation.

While other departments and agencies have to be listened to when they complain about budget pressures, it’s hard after reading the fine print in this committee report to show much sympathy to moans from the Pentagon.

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

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