Pentagon Submits Budget, And Services Ask for More

The Air Force says it does not have the money to buy more C-17 transport planes.
The Air Force says it does not have the money to buy more C-17 transport planes. (By Thomas Haentzschel -- Associated Press)
By Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The Pentagon not only left new C-17 transport planes out of its budget request this year, it set aside half a billion dollars to halt the planes' production. Officially, the Air Force took the same view, swearing off any more C-17s, which cost $250 million apiece.

Behind the scenes, however, Air Force officials and Boeing, which makes the C-17, have been lobbying Congress to get more of the planes built, key lawmakers said. Seven House members have responded by inserting into the defense bill one of that chamber's largest single earmarks -- a demand that the Air Force give Boeing $2.42 billion for new C-17s.

The Air Force "made it very clear to me that they needed the C-17 and could use the aircraft," said Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.), a fiscal conservative and one of the seven sponsors. "But we were going to have to stick it into the budget" because the Air Force was not going to allocate the money itself.

Congress has often padded the military's budget with demands for weaponry that the Pentagon says it does not need -- ranging from refueling tankers to artillery cannons and helicopters. But the C-17 case illustrates how individual military services sometimes lobby quietly to resurrect pet projects that wound up on the cutting-room floor in Defense Department budget deliberations.

"This has been going on probably since the Revolutionary War," said Dina Rasor, chief investigator with the Follow the Money Project, which tracks military spending on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. "There's a wink and nod here. The Pentagon will get what they want and the Congress will get what they want. Earmarking is a way for them to sneak it in the budget.

"Everyone keeps voting the money, and everyone's happy," Rasor said. "As a result, the defense budget is now beyond comprehension."

This is the second consecutive year that 10 unbudgeted C-17s have made their way into the defense bill, prompting three senators to question the Air Force procurement process and sparking concerns on Capitol Hill that more multibillion-dollar earmarks could be coming soon.

The Air Force and Boeing previously collaborated to lobby Congress for $30 billion to lease modified Boeing 767 civilian aircraft for use as military tankers. That effort was conceived by Boeing as the 767, like the C-17, was about to go out of production. It was blocked after a Senate investigation found evidence that Pentagon officials viewed the tanker lease as a politically influenced bailout for Boeing.

In that case, the Air Force secretary and his top acquisitions deputy resigned, an Air Force procurement officer was sent to prison, Boeing's chief executive was replaced and the company agreed to pay $615 million in large part to settle liability for the tanker mess. Air Force officials said the episode has led to an abundance of caution in procurement matters.

But the C-17 earmark -- the largest in the $507 billion defense bill -- is now at the center of a controversy over funding for the Air Force's strategic airlift fleet of about 300 planes, a group of aircraft that are used to ferry heavy equipment, supplies and troops into and around Iraq and Afghanistan.

Although the Pentagon has officially decided it would be cheaper and more effective to shut down the C-17 assembly line and upgrade an older fleet of C-5 transport aircraft, Air Force officials have been consistently saying behind the scenes that it would make more sense to retire 30 of the older planes and buy 30 new C-17s.

That option, which the Air Force deputy chief of staff for policy and the head of the Air Mobility Command have explained in briefings to House and Senate staff members and lawmakers, would require a shift in existing policy and cost $8 billion that the Air Force has officially said it is not prepared to spend.

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