If past is prologue, the office of Rep. Andy Ireland (R-Fla.) will give the new Defense Department budget one of its hardest looks. Ireland and his assistant for military affairs, Charlie Murphy, played the role of giant-killers last year when they took on the Navy's $52 billion A-12 "stealth" bomber program.

When Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney recently terminated the A-12 because it was overweight, over cost and behind schedule, officials called it the largest weapons contract cancellation ever by the Pentagon.

The Pentagon's inspector general acknowledged the crucial push Ireland and Murphy gave to the department's investigation of the program. "We began our investigation on June 19, 1990, in response to your meeting with the deputy inspector general," Inspector General Susan J. Crawford wrote Ireland. She said the Navy's investigation focused, in part, on why Cheney never learned about the A-12's problems until after Ireland triggered the probe.

When the A-12 project had started, the Navy planned to buy 620 of the bombers to replace the aged A-6 now on carrier decks in the Persian Gulf and elsewhere. But the report written by Chester Paul Beach Jr., Navy deputy general counsel, found that:

The Navy was so obsessed with secrecy on the A-12 that the normal cost-analysis report was not "prepared and forwarded" to top Navy officials "due to security concerns." As a result, senior Pentagon civilians, including Cheney, did not know that A-12 development was running $1 billion over projections. The staff of the undersecretary of defense for acquisition was not cleared to analyze the A-12 until the program was in deep trouble.

Contractors were paid for work they had not completed.

Nobody, apparently, was minding the store. As Beach put it: "Existing control mechanisms, properly operated, would have been sufficient to identify the nature and extent of the problems in this contract, but they were not properly operated."

The A-12 case underscores that managers of military programs "too often treat their superiors . . . as gatekeepers from whom they obtain necessary decisions and approvals" but need not keep informed about problems. The A-12 project manager did not pass problems up the chain but instead cast his reports "in a positive, optimistic light."

Last summer, several months after Cheney had told Congress all was well with the A-12, "secret patriots" -- what Pentagon whistle-blowers call each other -- put out the word that the A-12 was troubled.

"Maybe it's because I used to be a banker," Ireland said, "but I heard enough street talk about the A-12 to believe there was something wrong, that nobody was being held accountable to what was happening."

Ireland called Derek J. Vander Schaaf, the Pentagon's deputy inspector general, to express his concerns and demand the investigation that led to the A-12 cancellation.

"It would have kept going and going but ultimately fallen of its own weight," Ireland said of the bomber.

"The problem" with such Pentagon procurement projects, he said, "is the definition of success" used by their managers. "Within the military culture, success depends on fighting on despite losses. On the battlefield, success at any cost is laudable. But in procurement, the real measure of success is, can you do this within the resources available?"

Ireland said he and Murphy will study Cheney's new defense budget to see if programs and resources look in balance or whether the five-year plan is just another dream sheet. Before the A-12 case, Ireland had forced Cheney to acknowledge that there were "wedges" in past five-year budget plans representing cuts that had not yet been made.

For too long, Ireland complained, the Pentagon's attitude has been, "We'll just keep doing this and the country will bail us out."

Instead of trying to put long-range missiles on the existing A-6 bomber, for example, Ireland said, the Navy jumped into the A-12 program. "Political engineering -- the engineering that says the only thing that matters is how many jobs are going to be won or lost -- is a big part of the problem," he said.

Ireland credited Murphy, a former Marine corporal and Pentagon analyst, for boring into questionable programs like the A-12 to force out the facts. "He's Mr. Accountability," Ireland said. "He knows his business and doesn't get distracted. He wants to see the system work."

Former House member Jack Edwards (R-Ala.) said that when Murphy worked for him from 1975 to 1980 he dug into the reason why military planes were not flying as many hours as expected and documented a severe shortage of spare parts, leading to a restructuring of the Pentagon budget to provide more money for spares.

Murphy, an analyst at the Pentagon from 1980 to 1983 and legislative assistant to then-Sen. Lowell P. Weicker (R-Conn.) to 1988, joined Ireland's staff in 1989.

When it comes to military procurement, Murphy said, "Everything seems to be all wrong and nobody seems to care."

"On the A-12," he continued, "it seems that everybody in the world knew there was a problem but nobody stepped up to it. You have all these people -- all smart, advanced degrees, top-quality people. But look what they do. They ignore the facts. They cover up the problems."