Sunday, April 02, 2006

US auditors fault Pentagon on bang for buck

US auditors fault Pentagon on bang for buck
By Jim Wolf

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The projected cost of major U.S. weapons has doubled under President George W. Bush to nearly $1.4 trillion, but the Pentagon is not getting enough bang for its buck, congressional investigators said in a report on Friday.

In the fourth annual assessment of its kind, the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office (GAO), Congress's audit and investigative arm, found "no appreciable improvement" in how warplanes, ships and other arms are bought.

"Rather, programs are experiencing recurring problems with cost overruns, missed deadlines and performance shortfalls," GAO said in a review of 52 projects.

The cost of developing a weapons system often tops estimates by 30 to 40 percent, it said.

Among things highlighted as contributing to cost increases were the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, under development by Lockheed Martin Corp., and the Army's centerpiece Future Combat Systems, overseen by Boeing Co..

Overall, the Defense Department doubled planned investments in new weapons systems over the past five years from $700 billion in 2001, when President Bush took office, to $1.4 trillion, the 141-page report said.

"This huge increase has not been accompanied by more stability, better outcomes or more buying power for the acquisition dollar," Comptroller General David Walker, the GAO director, said in a cover letter to lawmakers.

To build a lighter, more lethal military, Bush has invested heavily in such things as the radar-evading F-35 and Future Combat Systems -- networked sensors, weapons and vehicles -- projected to be the costliest and most complex ever.

The report said the Defense Department had an "obligation to get better results," partly by making sure core technologies were mature before building on them.

Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney made improving Pentagon purchasing procedures a big issue during their 2000 election campaign. Cheney told the armed services "help is on the way" and Bush said he would "skip a generation of technology."

In its report, GAO said: "The way (the Defense Department) develops and produces its major weapons systems has had disappointing consequences."

Currently, "a large number" of the technologies under development in major systems are immature and it is "uncertain how long it will take or how much it will cost to make them operational," it said.

A Pentagon spokeswoman, Cheryl Irwin, said the Defense Department needed time to review the report before commenting on it in detail.

In comments on a draft of the report, the Pentagon said it required that technologies be demonstrated in at least a "relevant" environment before a program enters its costly development stage.

By contrast, GAO urged that technologies be assessed at a more challenging level -- akin to the "operational" environment in which they would be fielded.

GAO said the Pentagon was planning to start low-rate initial production early next year of the F-35 -- due to be the Pentagon's costliest purchase ever -- even though less than 1 percent of the flight test program would have been completed.

Pentagon officials met on Friday to weigh a timeline for initial production but no decisions were announced.