Armed Services chair eyes Pentagon acquisition process

Reforming the Pentagon's acquisition process will be central to defense budget negotiations in the House as authorizers gear up for subcommittee markups next week, Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., said Wednesday.

In particular, Hunter and other committee members are concerned about the skyrocketing costs of weapons systems, a byproduct of defense officials tacking on expensive -- and sometimes unneeded -- requirements to its priciest platforms.

"It's become a requirements stampede," Hunter said in an interview with CongressDaily. "What we've been doing is analogous to someone who is designing a home and gives their architect all the must-haves and like-to-have and then is billed $300 per square foot."

Hunter plans to use the authorization bill to require the Defense Department to certify that any capabilities added to a weapon system are worth the additional money. Similar proposals are expected during the committee's markup.

"The marginal capability that is acquired at a great cost is no longer affordable," Hunter said.

A congressional aide said House members' interest in overhauling the acquisition process is not limited to Hunter, or to his party. "There's just a sense that this problem is getting much worse than it has been in the past," the aide said.

The House panel's interest in changing the Pentagon approach to weapons buying comes on the heels of overhaul championed by Senate Armed Services Airland Subcommittee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz. McCain recently helped dismantle a controversial agreement to lease aerial refueling tankers and successfully pushed the Army and Air Force to revise multi-billion-dollar contracts to allow more government oversight.

Congressional interest in defense acquisitions is "cyclical" and goes back decades, with hearings dating back to the 1970s on many of these issues, said Dov Zakheim, former Pentagon comptroller and a vice president at Booz Allen Hamilton. Zakheim, who left the Pentagon last year, said acquisition overhaul requires a multi-pronged approach that involves making major cultural changes in the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill, as well as updating the military's personnel system to develop more seasoned program managers.

Winslow Wheeler, a visiting senior fellow at the Center for Defense Information and a former congressional staffer, said requiring certification that capabilities are worth their cost does not go far enough. "If the Navy wants to add a requirement, they will call it cost effective. If they don't, they won't," Wheeler said.

The Pentagon needs program oversight by "truly objective entities," Wheeler added.

Lawmakers' acquisition concerns come as the Pentagon attempts to slash more than $30 billion from its budget through 2011 by trimming or canceling buys on major systems. Officials, for instance, have opted to scrap planned procurement of C-130J cargo planes to save $5 billion over the next five years.

"We have now extremely expensive platforms that will be difficult to produce in numbers large enough to equip the existing" force, Hunter said.

Sources said platforms that are gaining the most attention for their cost increases are aircraft and ships, two areas hit hardest in the Pentagon's five-year budget cut proposal.

For instance, procurement costs for the Navy's next aircraft carrier are expected to exceed $10 billion, more than $3 billion higher than what the Pentagon traditionally spends on carriers. Meanwhile, the sticker price on a C-130J is $65 million. In 1964, a C-130B -- in 2005 dollars -- cost just $11.8 million.

But cost hikes are not limited to ships and airframes. The massive Future Combat Systems, the centerpiece of the Army's transformation efforts, grew in the last year from $92 billion to $125 billion after the service decided to restructure the program and fund previously unbudgeted subsystems.

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