Pick to Oversee Pentagon Acquisitions Targets Costly Weapons Programs

By Ellen Nakashima
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 26, 2009; 6:51 PM

Ashton Carter, President Obama's pick to be the official in charge of the Pentagon's $400 billion acquisition process, said at a confirmation hearing today that "Job One" would be to "get under control" the department's many weapons and services programs that are failing troops because they are too costly or unnecessary.

"The state of these programs is not acceptable to the war fighter or to the taxpayer," said Carter, a former Clinton administration official in line to become the next Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology & Logistics.

That job is pivotal to a larger goal--and a top Obama priority--of reforming the defense acquisition process itself.

If confirmed, Carter will face a number of competing pressures, including the military's need for effective equipment and services in wartime, the defense industry's desire to keep the spending spigot on, and a constrained budget that will force tough choices among weapons systems.

Carter, a Harvard University professor of international relations, majored in medieval history and physics at Yale. He first worked for the Pentagon from 1981-1982 on nuclear weapons systems and strategic defense issues under then-Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger. He was Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Policy in the first Clinton administration.

He was grilled yesterday by members of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Though he is not expected to face major hurdles, Carter was on the spot to explain his experience after the committee's ranking member, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) noted that he had "some concerns about your lack of in-depth experience in acquisition-related matters."

Carter refrained from indicating where he would come down on some of the most contentious weapons programs that are facing possible cancellation or postponement because of cost and other factors: the services' F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the Air Forces' aerial refueling tanker, the Army's Future Combat Systems.

"One of the first things I'm going to want to do is look, program by program, through the pipeline of programs we have and try to get in front of the process" instead of "discovering midway, 'oops' " programs are in trouble, said Carter.

He voiced support for legislation sponsored by the committee chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and McCain (R-ARiz.), that aims to revamp the acquisition process by, among other things, creating a position of a director of independent cost assessment, allowing for programs that overrun their budgets to be cancelled and requiring maximum competition for major weapons purchases, where cost-effective.

In response to pointed questions by McCain, Carter said he agreed that the defense industry has undergone great consolidation over the years such that "it's hard to have true competition."

"The result has been that .. .initial cost proposals made are usually far less than even those competing for the contract believe" they should be, McCain said. "Any validity to that suspicion?"

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