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It's not $640 toilet seats, but...

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Most of the Pentagon's weapon systems cost much more than they should, are built much more slowly than they could be and the entire system needs fundamental reform.

Those were the conclusions of most lawmakers and one senior defense acquisition expert at a hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in Washington earlier this week.

Perhaps most damning, senior staff member Michael Sullivan from the Government Accountability Office told lawmakers that the system had not really been any better or worse when he started investigating defense procurement in 1986, though he conceded there were some recent small signs of improvement.

The hearing's poster child for botched Pentagon buying was a $13.2 billion Marine Corps program called the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle. The program for the updated AAV started in 1996 when the Marines issued a contract to General Dynamics. Initially, the program won plaudits for its innovative management and it passed through the program definition and risk reduction phase in mid-2001. Then things began to fall apart. The Marines issued a contract for the next phase of the program which was supposed to cost $712 million but quickly rose by the end of 2006 to an estimated $1.2 billion.

The modernized amtrac, according to a report prepared for the Oversight Committee's chairman, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), weighed too much to carry combat-ready Marines and still go as fast as it should. It operated only four-and-half hours before requiring major maintenance instead of the planned 47 hours. It was so loud that Marines could not speak to each other and had to wear ear plugs.

Originally, the Pentagon planned to buy 1,025 Expeditionary Fighting Vehicles for $8.4 billion. Now the military plans to buy 593 for $13.2 billion. Costs per vehicle, according to the committee's report, have increased 168 percent and production has slipped eight years.

But the Marines' EFV was certainly not alone in being a botched acquisition, Sullivan told the committee. His testimony noted that not one of the 72 weapons programs his office reviewed used "the best practices standards for mature technologies, stable design and mature production processes" He told the committee that "acquisition problems will likely persist until DoD provides a better foundation for buying the right things, the right way." Right now, the military promises it can do too much, and underestimates how much weapons will cost.

The stakes are enormous. The Defense Department plans to spend $900 billion over the next five years on developing and buying weapons. Current programs are usually 21 months late in getting initial capabilities to the soldiers, Marines and airmen who need them. That is five months later than an analysis done in 2000 indicated, according to Sullivan's prepared testimony. Almost 45 percent of the Pentagon's major acquisition programs are paying more than 25 percent more per system than originally planned, compared to 37 percent of programs in 2000.

The biggest problems Sullivan found in his examination of defense spending were: requirements that grew and grew and grew; turnover of program managers that raised issues of "continuity and accountability;" too much responsibility in the hands of companies for work that used to be done by government officials; and difficulty overseeing the increasingly complex job of software development.

The two Pentagon officials at the hearing conceded there was room for improvement but insisted the system is not broken and is actually beginning to improve.

James Finley, deputy undersecretary of Defense for acquisition and technology, said that when he underwent Senate confirmation many people believed the process was broken. After his first 90 days in office he concluded they were wrong. "We needed to add discipline to the process and ensure that the basic blocking and tackling in executing the acquisition process was done correctly," he testified.

Senior Pentagon leaders developed a three-year plan and is 26 months into implementing that plan. It includes greater focus on the beginning of a program to make sure prototypes are used to get a better handle on performance, cost, how to build the system and how long it will take to build, Finley said. The Pentagon has cut the paperwork for reviews by half and has standardized red, yellow and green indicators for cost, schedule and performance. There is greater focus on program stability - keeping funding steady and limiting turnover of key personnel -- and the Pentagon created earned value management system "trip wires" to help identify problems on a monthly basis, Finley said.

-- Colin Clark

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