Remember the $435 hammer and the $640 toilet cover of the early 1980s?
Meet the $668,000 facsimile machine, the $1,868 toilet cover and the $999 pliers of the 1990s.
But these are no ordinary pieces of equipment. This Air Force fax machine, according to one senator, can pump out pages after a nuclear blast or receive a document after submersion in three feet of water.
"Nothing has changed except the rhetoric," said Ernest A. Fitzgerald, the Air Force management system deputy who helped expose many of the overpriced spare parts bought while Caspar W. Weinberger was defense secretary. "The main impact of the reforms that have taken place has been to cover up more than they used to . . . . We're back full circle."
In recent weeks, members of Congress have resurrected concerns about overpricing and gold-plating of military products, issues a long string of Pentagon officials have tried to resolve.
"The public has been led to believe that the spare-parts horror stories of the mid-1980s were corrected," said Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) and Sen. William V. Roth Jr. (R-Del.) in a recent letter to the Pentagon's inspector general. "We have recently uncovered data that shows the Department of Defense is still paying exorbitant prices for spare parts and supply items."
They have a long list of examples: A $1,868 toilet cover bought as a spare for the C-5 transport plane; a $999.20 pair of pliers; a $120 cup dispenser, and a $343.08 altar vase for a military chapel.
Yesterday, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) weighed in with yet another example: An Air Force decision to develop and buy 174 fax machines costing about $668,000 each when development costs and spare parts are added. Levin said the Air Force regulations "required that the machines withstand a nuclear blast, operate after being immersed in three feet of water and function from minus-25 to 125 degrees Fahrenheit."
An Air Force official yesterday disputed some of the costs, saying the service has paid $32.9 million for 173 fax machines and an additional $40 million for 250 sets of spare parts and 173 "war-readiness spare kits, special support equipment, maintenance equipment and diagnostic equipment." The spokesman said the machine, called the "tactical digital facsimile," was purchased as result of needs that arose during the Vietnam War and the raid on Libya in 1986.
"It is needed because it is a specialized system that allows you to transmit timely, high-quality imagery maps and other materials to our air crews for combat mission planning," the spokesman said.
Levin argued, "The heart of the problem is that the Air Force developed ridiculous specifications for these machines without even considering available technology."
Not so, said the Air Force: "The commercially available fax does not provide the safeguards necessary to allow worldwide deployment under a variety of environmental conditions." Small commercial fax machines can be purchased for about $1,000.
The Air Force fax machine, built by Litton Industries Inc. in College Park, is lightweight, rugged and durable, according to the Pentagon spokesman, who said it can be used with public telephones as well as military lines and can use a variety of encryption devices for transmitting classified material. It can operate in the battlefield using batteries, generators or commercial power anywhere in the world.
The spokesman said the fax machine will replace human courier services previously required to get satellite and other maps to combat headquarters.
But Levin told colleagues in a floor speech yesterday that the Air Force machines, which were designed in the early 1980s, are already outdated.
Air Force officials said none of the machine have been delivered, but that some operational tests have been conducted.
Each of the senators investigating Pentagon pricing issues has raised questions about Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney's efforts to control overpricing and other acquisition problems. Cheney last year introduced his Defense Management Review with much fanfare, saying it would tackle many of these perennial problems.
"The fact that defense acquisition officials continue not only to accept these prices but also to defend them as reasonable is unacceptable to the American taxpayer," Roth said in the letter to Cheney.