Weak Hand

The Pentagon must play the cards it has, not the cards it wants.

Facing the end of a long spending spree, under fire for allowing high-level fraud and mismanagement, squeezed by cost and schedule overruns on huge weapons programs, the Defense Department hardly looks like the biggest winner at the federal procurement table. But it still is. Without counting war supplemental appropriations, the Defense base budget of $440 billion amounts to 3.9 percent of the nation's gross domestic product. In fiscal 2005, Defense contracts bested $278 billion, up from $229 billion in 2004. And it has doubled planned spending on new weapons systems over five years, from $700 billion in 2001 to nearly $1.4 trillion in 2006.

But the growing federal deficit and rising costs of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan threaten to gnaw away at Defense's edge. North Korea tested long-range missiles in early July; a surging China remains a challenge; and Hezbollah has emerged as a surprisingly well-equipped force in the Middle East as a proxy for Iran and Syria.

The Army and Marines continue to bear heavy burdens in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are planning to spend nearly $30 billion combined in 2007 just to maintain and repair equipment used in the fighting. The wear and tear on troops rotated in and out of the theater is equally daunting.

Despite the growing cost of those operations, the Pentagon remains committed to hugely expensive, multiyear programs such as the Army's Future Combat Systems, whose total life-cycle cost recently was recalculated at $300 billion, and the Joint Strike Fighter, whose cost has increased 27 percent-from $66 million to $84 million per plane since its inception.

A Government Accountability Office study released in April (GAO-06-368) evaluated 23 major weapons programs and found 10 running more than 30 percent over budget, or more than a year behind in hitting technical goals. GAO rapped Defense for speeding weapons into production without fully testing technologies.

The fiscal 2008 Defense budget will try out a new approach to large procurements-joint funding and management by more than one military service-to reduce duplication of effort and incompatible technology. Pentagon officials will direct the services to manage portfolios of capabilities, rather than individual projects, in intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance, logistics and communications.

Meanwhile, missile defense advocates on Capitol Hill are capitalizing on fears of a rising threat from North Korea to boost funding for the already pricey program. A week after North Korea's July 5 test of its long-range Taepodong-2 missile, House Armed Services Chairman Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., announced his intention to use House-Senate conference negotiations on the fiscal 2007 defense authorization bill to expand missile defense spending and accelerate the program. The missile test, though unsuccessful, demonstrated that the United States needs an interceptor capability sooner rather than later to shoot down incoming ballistic missiles, Hunter says.

Republican leaders of the Senate Armed Services Committee reacted coolly to Hunter's plan, indicating that the $9.3 billion research and development request is sufficient, unless Defense tells them otherwise. Nevertheless, the Senate unanimously approved an amendment offered by Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., during floor debate on the defense bill that would increase missile defense testing accounts by $45 million.

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