By Ellen Nakashima and Dana Hedgpeth
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, March 11, 2009
The White House budget office has asked the Pentagon to consider delaying the purchase of aerial refueling tankers by five years, a move that reflects the constraints of drawing up a budget in the midst of a recession, according to two sources familiar with the administration's discussions.
The possible delay in one of the Pentagon's most expensive programs is one of a number of options the administration is weighing, the sources said. No final budget decisions have been made, officials said.
Delaying the purchase of the tankers, which would replace a fleet that dates to the Eisenhower administration, will draw fierce opposition from the defense industry and many members of Congress, whose districts have tens of thousands of jobs related to the program.
It comes as the administration is considering which programs to include in its 2010 defense spending request to Congress next month, and as it grapples with a broken Pentagon procurement system that has led to about $300 billion in cost overruns on 95 major weapons systems compared with initial estimates.
President Obama last month unveiled a general budget calling for $534 billion in defense spending, $50 billion less than what the Joint Chiefs of Staff had argued was needed. The Pentagon and the White House's Office of Management and Budget now are figuring out which programs will survive.
"This is a zero sum game," said Lawrence J. Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, who advised the Obama campaign on defense issues, describing the process of determining winners and losers.
The possible tanker program delay was reported by CQ Daily yesterday. Bloomberg News yesterday also reported on a Jan. 29 Office of Management and Budget document that listed possible program cuts.
Other programs that are candidates for cancellation or delay are the Army's Future Combat System, a weapons system built by Boeing that allows combat vehicles, robots and sensors to communicate through a wireless network; the Air Force's airborne laser anti-missile program, also built by Boeing; and the Marines' expeditionary fighting vehicle, built by General Dynamics. A tentative plan to build new long-range bombers also could be shelved.
Many are not surprises. For instance, Obama had said on the campaign trail that he would scrutinize the airborne laser program.
While the list is not an official proposal of what the White House is proposing to cut, it signals the administration recognizes "the time for priority setting has arrived," after the Bush administration's eight years of avoiding "hard choices," said Gordon Adams, a defense policy expert and former OMB official.
Adams, an American University professor, said that although one day a new tanker will be needed, "it is not needed tomorrow."
Some defense industry analysts say the tanker program is unlikely to be delayed because it has such strong support on Capitol Hill, and defense companies already have spent millions on designs and plans.
Also, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said last year that he supported moving forward.
Some defense experts who otherwise support the administration's effort to phase out Cold War-era systems question the wisdom of delaying the tanker program. "You need tankers," Korb said. "You need them more than fighters. You need to refuel."
Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.), whose district includes a Boeing plant, said the Air Force has called the tanker program its top priority. The existing tankers, some of which are 50 years old, "have the possibility of having breakdowns," he said. "We have to get started on this and move forward. This is a good time to do it with the U.S. economy hurting."
Defense firms competing on the deal said they expect the Pentagon to run another competition this year for the contract, which could be worth up to $100 billion over the next two decades.
The tanker program has been fraught with controversy, including a contracting scandal that sent an Air Force official and a Boeing executive to prison. Last year the deal was rebid and awarded to Northrop Grumman and its partner, European Aeronautic Defence and Space, parent of Airbus. Boeing fought the award and it was overturned.
OMB spokesman Ken Baer said his office has "not directed the Defense Department to either delay production of the new tanker or cancel the new bombers."