The Defense Department announced a crackdown yesterday on "gold-plated" weapons and other items that are built to much higher standards than common sense would dictate.
In a speech to defense contractors and in two internal memoranda, the Pentagon's second-ranking official outlined a new effort to curb "over-specification," the military habit of demanding that industry outfit every weapon with as many gadgets as possible no matter what the cost.
William H. Taft IV, deputy secretary of defense, also said that the Pentagon now will set requirements for new weapons but allow contractors to find the best way to meet those requirements.
Contractors have complained for years about "military specifications" that drive up costs without providing much added quality. Such complex specifications as a seven-page document on how to build a simple whistle have kept many businesses from seeking Pentagon contracts for uniforms and other unsophisticated items, according to many in the field.
Pentagon officials said the recently uncovered case of the $7,400 coffee brewer is a good example of over-specification. Air Force officials, when presented with the price they paid for coffee brewers on C5A cargo planes, found that they could not blame the manufacturer because Air Force officials had specified that the machine should be able to withstand forces that humans cannot survive.
Similarly, the Navy paid $16,571 for a small refrigerator designed to hold crew lunches and soft drinks on P3 submarine-chasing airplanes. The Navy said the refrigerator was designed to meet "rigid vibration standards" and "to operate safely at high altitudes in unpressurized situations."
"It makes sense . . . to demand an aircraft that can withstand great stress, especially if it may have to land on primitive runways," Taft told the National Security Industrial Association yesterday. "It does not make sense to specify requirements for a refrigerator that enable it to withstand more stress than the airplane it goes in can withstand, and we need to stop doing that."
Taft appealed to the contractors to help the Pentagon identify "these gold-plated items."
"They are giving both the Defense Department and the defense industry a black eye," he said.
At the same time, Taft ordered the Army, Navy and Air Force to produce management plans within 45 days to eliminate gold-plating. He also ordered each service to appoint a general or admiral as "streamlining advocate" by Dec. 15 to make sure the plans are implemented.
Taft said that there are 40,000 military specifications and standards in the Defense Standardization and Specification Program and "literally millions" of drawings. "Therefore, we cannot define the extent of the problem," his memo said.
Yesterday the Army announced a "request for proposal" for a new helicopter engine that it said is in the spirit of Taft's offensive. The request specifies the performance standards the Army is seeking for its new light helicopter but says industry should propose how best to meet those standards.
Lt. Col. Bruce S. Beals, an Army spokesman, said the request for proposal is about 150 pages. By comparison, he said, most such requests to industry usually run between 600 and 2,000 pages.