As you all well know, I've been dogging Rep. John Murtha, the powerful chairman of the House Appropriations Committee's defense subcommittee, pretty hard ever since his fly-off-the-handle accusation of murder by a squad of Marines in Haditha back in mid-2006.
Well, I nervously attended a roundtable interview this morning in DC with Murtha and a group of the country's top defense writers -- figuring I might get the cold shoulder from the Democratic Bull. But I was surprised to find that he was remarkably candid, brewing with news and even friendly. A far cry from the confrontational chairman I'd peppered with questions in the past.
He said a lot of stuff on defense tech issues -- info we're going to build into longer stories in the coming hours -- but what I thought I'd do is give you all a data dump of the basics of what he said...a sort of tear out of the pages of my reporter's notebook, if you will:
Tanker -- Murtha said he was strongly in favor of a split buy because he thought no matter who "wins" a recompete, there will be yet another protest that will delay the fielding and hamper global reach efforts. He wants a production throughput of three planes per month which he says even with the split buy, will save money in the long run because of the near crushing maintenance costs of keeping the KC-135s aloft. Murtha had just met with DefSec Gates the previous day, and though Gates has said publicly he's against a split buy, Murtha said "I don't know that he's against it" hinting that the White House might be driving that argument and Gates might have some flexibility on the issue.
Raptor -- Lots here. First, Murtha is against the shut down of the F-22 line for what he says are purely national security issues. He says he's going to try and find $3.2 billion (my notes said $20B but i re-listened to the recording and he said $3.2B -- not sure why I wrote $20B) to build 20 more next year and has asked Gates to provide him with some national security threat estimates that would justify NOT buying more Raptors. Murtha says he's concerned about a rising China competing for energy resources in the coming years and noted that "World War II started because we cut off Japan's energy supply" (though I gather some historians would object to that characterization). Murtha said he's 50/50 on whether he can get the money for more F-22s, but he said "Lockheed has given up" on getting the extra orders.
Also, Murtha touched on the issue of an export version of the F-22 -- principally to Japan who says only the F-22 can meet its range and speed requirements for a new interceptor. Murtha said Sen. Daniel Inouye is working with Japan to come up with the cash needed to "de-militarize" the F-22 (to remove the secret gadgets and gizmos from the US version) which he estimates will be around $300 million. Murtha thinks that's way too optimistic and that gutting the F-22 for export will cost more along the lines of $1 billion.
Murtha said he's worried about the high cost of maintaining the Raptor as well -- that it might be difficult to bring that cost under control and will contribute to major sticker shock among lawmakers (and a White House) who are looking for money to spend elsewhere.
F-35 -- Murtha said he was just as worried about the long term costs of the F-35 and the delays in production and technological maturity with that program as he is with the travails of the F-22. He said that even though the JSF is a priority for the Obama administration, his committee may not give them the requested money for 2010. "I'm for the F-35. I'm for buying the F-35. But I'm not necessarily for buying it this year."
EFV -- Murtha was stunned when his staff learned that the EFV had an aluminum underbody that would be warm butter to a mine or IED when ashore. He told the commandant that the EFV program was "on the bubble" and that he'd better get control of it and make good on the billions invested in the program already. Murtha talked to Gates about the EFV as well at his meeting the previous day and revealed that Gates has his critical eye on the program as well. "This has been going on for 25 years, this research, and it's expensive as hell. You can't keep spending money on research and then come to us and say you're just going to cancel the program. That's just not acceptable."
VH-71 (Prez Helo) -- The bottom line is that Murtha wants to make use of the $3.2 billion already spent on the program to field at least some portion of the fleet that's already been built or is close to being finished. He said there are nine choppers either built or nearly built that we should field. He also leveled sharp criticism at the Secret Service for loading down the program with unnecessary requirements -- "We continue to try to convince the administration on the VH-71. ... This was Secret Service who said we need all these things on this airplane. ... They said they were going to push it off to the Obama administration and there was so much bad publicity about it, I think they reacted to the publicity." Murtha said he tried to convince White House officials and Pentagon brass to keep the program and try to see how the Congress could salvage the money already spent. They reportedly told him "okay, okay" then they went ahead and cancelled it.
We're slicing and dicing more of the roundtable for DT, DoD Buzz and Military.com so stay tuned for more.