By Dana Hedgpeth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 14, 2009
Top Army officials yesterday defended their largest and most expensive modernization effort, the Future Combat System, despite suggestions that the contract will overshoot cost estimates and that the service should limit the amount of money it gives the program.
The program likely will cost more than the $159 billion the Pentagon has estimated, according to the Government Accountability Office's annual review of the program, released Thursday. That office, the investigative arm of Congress, recommended that legislators not give the program as much money in the upcoming fiscal year until it is reviewed. The huge program also is under scrutiny by the Obama administration, which is reviewing military spending.
The weapons system, which allows combat vehicles, robots and sensors to communicate through a wireless network, is "unlikely to be executed" within the current cost estimate, according to the GAO.
Boeing, the lead contractor on the program, along with its partner SAIC, defended its record. "We believe that we are successful at executing FCS to the Army's plan and will continue to do so," spokesman Matt Billingsley said.
In a conference call yesterday, the Army's top officials defended past cost increases. Overall, the program was being "executed well," said Lt. Gen. N. Ross Thompson III, military deputy to the assistant secretary of the Army for acquisition, logistics and technology.
The critical report on the weapons system comes as the GAO and Army officials are scheduled to testify about it Tuesday before a subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee.
In coming weeks, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates is expected to lay out details of his more than $500 billion budget for next year. He has previously said that the "spigot" will be turned off on massive spending, leaving many defense contractors to worry whether weapons programs that are over budget or have unproven technologies would be scaled back or eliminated.
Defense analyst Mackenzie Eaglen of the Heritage Foundation said the Future Combat System has been a tough sell for the Pentagon on Capitol Hill because it is costly and complex. That could make it "ripe for dramatic cuts" in future years, she said.
Because the program is considered to be high risk and in need of special oversight, Congress requires annual reports on it. The GAO said the network's performance is "largely unproven."
"They have less than half their money left, but they have a whole lot of work ahead of them in terms of developing and testing equipment and networks," said Paul Francis, GAO director of acquisition and sourcing management. "They have so much planned and not enough time and money to do it."
Boeing is expected to start initial production of the combat system in 2013, but GAO officials caution that money could be wasted if the technology hasn't been proven. The program has received about $3.2 billion, on average, for the last three to four years, Francis said. This summer, he said, major decisions have to be made about whether to keep going with it as planned. "All we're saying to Congress is to put some limits on next year's money for this," Francis said.