Correction to This Article
The article incorrectly identified then-Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) as one of the senators who signed a letter supporting the continued production of the Air Force's F-22 fighter jet. The signature in question belonged to Sen. Joseph% I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), spokeswomen for both men say.

Pentagon's Unwanted Projects in Earmarks

By R. Jeffrey Smith and Ellen Nakashima
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, March 8, 2009

When President Obama promised Wednesday to attack defense spending that he considers wasteful and inefficient, he opened a fight with key lawmakers from his own party.

It was Democrats who stuffed an estimated $524 million in defense earmarks that the Pentagon did not request into the 2008 appropriations bill, about $220 million more than Republicans did, according to an independent estimate. Of the 44 senators who implored Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates in January to build more F-22 Raptors -- a fighter conceived during the Cold War that senior Pentagon officials say is not suited to probable 21st-century conflicts -- most were Democrats.

And last July, when the Navy's top brass decided to end production of their newest class of destroyers -- in response to 15 classified intelligence reports highlighting their vulnerability to a range of foreign missiles -- seven Democratic senators quickly joined four Republicans to demand a reversal. They threatened to cut all funding for surface combat ships in 2009.

Within a month, Gates and the Navy reversed course and endorsed production of a third DDG-1000 destroyer, at a cost of $2.7 billion.

"Too many contractors have been allowed to get away with delay after delay in developing unproven weapon systems," Obama said, attributing $295 billion in cost overruns to "influence peddling" and "a lack of oversight" that produces weapons meant "to make a defense contractor rich" instead of securing the nation.

He did not mention that since 2006, Democratic lawmakers have presided over a 10 percent increase in the Pentagon's budget -- it now amounts to 46 percent of the government's total discretionary spending -- and have also voted repeatedly to keep funding weapons systems that have had hundreds of billions of dollars in cost overruns.

Although Obama complimented one Democratic and one Republican senator who last month proposed revisions, senior Pentagon officials predict that gaining support on Capitol Hill for ending procurement abuses will be an uphill battle.

"There is equal blame to go around," a senior defense official said Friday, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of political sensitivities. "It's bipartisan. It's all about political expediency."

He added that Gates, who has lately been urging both the Pentagon and Congress to set aside parochial interests in setting budget priorities, is "not naive" -- he expects only to improve the process, not to perfect it. Gates is "willing to use the capital he has built up" if necessary, the official said.

But a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) defended the Democrats' record on defense spending. "This kind of spending can play an important role in our ongoing effort to improve critical national defense programs," Jim Manley said.

Independent experts say the obstacles to radical change in defense procurement are all familiar: Close ties between contractors and the military services help ensure that waste and inefficiency are unpunished. Lawmakers seeking home-state jobs and a steady flow of campaign contributions have every incentive to keep funding programs that Pentagon officials say they do not need, particularly in an economic downturn.

"A lot of these weapon systems that are big-ticket items now have no purpose," said William Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Initiative at the New America Foundation, a Washington think tank. "The Taliban doesn't have an air force. China and Russia are at least a generation behind us. So at a time when we're talking about developing unmanned aerial vehicles and want to increase our special forces, we ought to be making a clean sweep of these systems that were built during the Cold War."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company