Senators spar over changes to future combat system

Reigniting the long rivalry between defense authorizers and appropriators over who sets policy for the Pentagon, Senate Armed Services Airland Subcommittee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., has vowed to fight language in the Senate's $445.5 billion fiscal 2006 Defense appropriations bill that requires the Army to make major changes in the Future Combat System if it falls behind schedule.

In a statement in the Congressional Record, McCain argued that appropriators overstepped their bounds by establishing a policy that could potentially increase its price tag, already estimated at $125 billion. The provision would require the Army to develop one of the eight manned ground vehicles separately from the rest of the so-called system of systems if the service misses Future Combat System schedule goals.

Appropriators also appear intent on keeping the Non-Line-of-Sight Cannon -- the first Future Combat System ground vehicle under development -- on track for 2010. Future Combat System is considered the technological core of the Army's transformation effort.

The language is among the most "egregious" provisions in the spending bill that passed earlier this month, McCain wrote in the five-page statement detailing his many objections. McCain said he fears dividing up the sprawling program "fundamentally changes" it and could increase development costs and risks.

Congressional defense committees have tinkered with the Future Combat System in general, and the Non-Line-of-Sight Cannon in particular. In the fiscal 2003 defense authorization bill, Congress first carved out a separate budget line for the Non-Line-of-Sight Cannon despite objections from Army leaders.

But a source familiar with the program noted that the new language in the fiscal 2006 appropriations bill could go further and spur contractors for other pieces of Future Combat System to maneuver to develop their systems separately from the overall program.

"Everybody now will want to break their independent pieces out," the source said. "Now, we're back to business as usual."

McCain argued that his subcommittee oversees the program and said he plans to offer language repealing the provision "at the appropriate time" to the defense authorization bill. Senate debate on the authorization measure was halted in July after less than a week of floor time.

Senate leaders have failed so far to strike a compromise that would allow the debate on the legislation to resume. McCain has been particularly watchful of Future Combat System since the spring when he pushed the Army to revise its contract with Boeing.

The original contract allowed for more program management flexibility than traditional contracts. The Senate's version of the fiscal 2006 Defense appropriations bill would cut $100 million from the Pentagon's $3.4 billion request for Future Combat System.

Earlier this year, the House slashed $400 million from the program. Like their Senate colleagues, House appropriators also voiced concern that the cannon could fall behind schedule.

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