Costs and war sap US military readiness

History

A top Democratic lawmaker called for urgent improvement of the US military's readiness, saying the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and cost overruns in weapons programs had sapped its ability to respond quickly to a crisis elsewhere.

Rep. Ike Skelton, a Missouri Democrat who heads the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee, said military officials had finally begun to acknowledge these problems after years of questioning by Congress.

“Should a major unexpected contingency occur today, it could not be answered in a timely fashion and this worries me to death,” Skelton told a group of defense writers.

“We are in dire need of upgrading our readiness,” he said, citing concerns about military training, the strain of repeated deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, and difficulties ensuring troops had the equipment they needed.

Noting it has been five years since the Iraq war began, Skelton said the average time between major conflicts over the past decades had been about five years.

Skelton said he hoped to include language in the fiscal 2009 defense spending bill to improve military readiness, increase the focus on Afghanistan, and underscore the need for more help from the State Department and other federal agencies. The legislation will be drafted by his committee next month.

Cost growth in nearly every US weapons program was compounding the issue, he said.

Rep. Henry Waxman, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, on Tuesday held a hearing on Pentagon weapons programs, calling them “one of the biggest sources of wasteful spending in the federal budget.”

Waxman noted a recent Government Accountability Office study put cost overruns in weapons programs at nearly $300 billion and cited average delays of nearly two years.

Waxman took aim at one program, a $1.2 billion Marine Corps amphibious tank that was being developed by General Dynamics Corp. He said the company received more than $60 million in bonuses for the program even though its tanks flunked their tests. Now the Pentagon planned to spend nearly $1 billion more to redo the development efforts.

“There seems to be absolutely no accountability,” he said. “The contractors keep getting rich, senior Pentagon officials keep receiving lucrative job offers, and the taxpayer keeps getting stuck with the check.”

Skelton said the Pentagon needed to focus more on winning the current wars, especially in Afghanistan, than spending billions on weapons for possible future conflicts.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently said the Air Force needed to produce more unmanned airplanes for use in Iraq and Afghanistan, rather than focusing on its stealth F-22 fighter jet that is geared for combat against another military force.

The Air Force wants to buy 381 Lockheed Martin Corp F-22 fighters, but says it can only afford 183.

Skelton also said the Navy's goal of expanding to a 313-ship fleet was becoming “pretty illusory,” given cost growth in the ships under construction. He said he supported the addition of more ships to the Navy's 2009 budget, but it was not clear exactly how many it could afford to buy.

Skelton defended moves by lawmakers to add spending for certain weapons projects not included in the Pentagon's budget request, including billions of dollars in recent years for additional C-17 transport plane built by Boeing Co.

He said Congress sometimes had a longer-range vision than the Pentagon, but occasionally lawmakers also needed to take a “hard look and not fund some of the pet projects of the services. It's our job sometimes to pick and choose.” (Reuters)

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