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Obama, Gates Lead Defense Acquisition Reforms

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Aug. 21, 2009 – President Barack Obama threw his weight behind the Defense Department’s acquisition reform efforts earlier this week, emphasizing that unnecessary spending hurts not only taxpayers, but also warfighters on the front lines.

“Every dollar wasted in our defense budget is a dollar we can’t spend to care for our troops or protect America or prepare for the future,” the president told participants at the Veterans of Foreign Wars’ 110th convention, in Phoenix.

Obama made clear that he’s 100 percent behind reforms Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates made a top priority – second only to succeeding in Iraq and Afghanistan – the day he assumed his post two and a half years ago.

“We cannot build the 21st-century military we need and maintain the fiscal responsibility that America demands unless we fundamentally reform the way our Defense Department does business,” Obama told the veterans. “It’s a simple fact.”

Talk about changing the way the Defense Department does business is nothing new. What’s new, a senior Pentagon official told American Forces Press Service, is that the issue has percolated to the highest levels, turning rhetoric into action.

Gates, Deputy Defense Secretary William J. Lynn III and other defense leaders have demonstrated that they’re willing to make the difficult decisions about which programs to support and which to curtail, said Shay Assad, acting deputy undersecretary of defense for acquisition and technology.

The president’s fiscal 2010 defense budget proposal reflects some of those hard decisions. It proposes cutting or ending several conventional modernization programs that proved to be poor performers or simply weren’t needed in light of real-world needs to free up funding for other, needed programs.

“The secretary has shown the courage to make those tough decisions, because in some quarters, they are not popular decisions,” Assad said. “They are absolutely the right decisions to have been made for the warfighters and the taxpayers, but there are parochial interests involved.”

Gates, backed up by the president, has demonstrated he’s willing to stand up to those interests to make those decisions stick. In a pointed speech last month at the Economic Club of Chicago, he told Congress, the defense industry and the defense institution itself that it’s time to put the “business-as-usual approach to national defense” aside.

Obama recognized some of that “business as usual” during his VFW address. “You’ve heard the stories: the indefensible no-bid contracts that cost taxpayers billions and make contractors rich, the special interests and their exotic projects that are years behind schedule and billions over budget, the entrenched lobbyists pushing weapons that even our military says it doesn’t want,” he said.

“The impulse in Washington to project jobs back home, building things we don’t need, has a cost that we can’t afford,” Obama said. “This waste would be unacceptable at any time. But at a time when we’re fighting two wars and facing a serious deficit, it’s inexcusable. It’s an affront to the American people and to our troops. And it’s time for it to stop.”

Special interests, contractors and entrenched lobbyists invested in the status quo and are putting up a fight, Obama recognized.

“But make no mistake, so are we,” he said. “If a project doesn’t support our troops, if it does not make America safer, we will not fund it. If a system doesn’t perform, we will terminate it. And if Congress sends me a defense bill loaded with a bunch of pork, I will veto it.”

The decision to cancel the F-22 Raptor aircraft program shows this spirit in action.

Gates dug in his heels when Congress pushed the Pentagon to buy more than the 187 F-22s it needed or wanted. Obama threatened a presidential veto if Congress didn’t eliminate the $1.75 billion in additional F-22 funding it had added to the budget request. The Senate ultimately relented and withdrew the funding.

Obama referenced the F-22 decision during his VFW address, questioning why the United States would consider spending nearly $2 billion to buy F-22s “when we can move ahead with a fleet of newer, more affordable aircraft.”

But even that alternative aircraft – the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter – has come under acquisition reformers’ scrutiny. Obama called excessive costs in that program just one example of “tens of billions of dollars in waste we don’t need” – that he vowed to cut.

“Think about it: Hundreds of millions of dollars for an alternate second engine for the Joint Strike Fighter when one reliable engine will do just fine,” he said. “Tens of billions of dollars to put an anti-missile laser on a fleet of vulnerable 747s. And billions of dollars for a new presidential helicopter.”

The Defense Department scrapped the VH-71 presidential helicopter development and demonstration program in June. That program, designed to replace the VH-3D and VH-60N helicopters that currently conduct presidential missions, had doubled in cost and was running six years behind schedule, Assad said.

Compounding the issue were questions about whether the helicopter offered the needed capability.

Obama poked fun during the VFW convention at some of the capabilities the VH-71 would have delivered. “Among other capabilities, it would let me cook a meal while under nuclear attack,” he said, eliciting laughter from the audience. “Now let me tell you something: If the United States of America is under nuclear attack, the last thing on my mind will be whipping up a snack.”

The decision to terminate the VH-71 program reflects a broader recognition of the need to overhaul the way the department buys weapons systems, Assad said. It’s already making an impact through better-defined requirements up-front, more competitive bidding and increased program oversight, he said.

Obama touted some of that progress to the VFW. “I’ve already put an end to unnecessary no-bid contracts,” he said. “I’ve signed bipartisan legislation to reform defense procurement so weapons systems don’t spin out of control,” a reference to the Weapons Systems Acquisition Reform Act he signed into law in May.

“And even as we increase spending on the equipment and weapons our troops do need,” he said, “we’ve proposed cutting tens of billions in dollars we don’t need.”

Obama underscored the importance of these initiatives for warfighters on the front lines today, as well as those who will defend against future threats.

“This is pretty straightforward: Cut the waste. Save taxpayer dollars. Support the troops. That’s what we should be doing,” Obama said. “We will do right by our troops and taxpayers, and we will build the 21st-century military that we need.”

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Shay Assad

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