Senate Approves New Weapons Buying Process

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Senate voted Wednesday to bring new discipline to a Pentagon weapons acquisition system that too often goes off target with exploding costs and lengthy delays.

The Senate's 95-0 vote, and expected House action on Thursday, would send the legislation to the White House and meet a request by President Barack Obama to get an acquisition overhaul to his desk before the Memorial Day recess.

"The magnitude of this problem is such that we must move quickly on it," said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. "Growth and cost overruns on these programs have simply reached levels which are unaffordable, unsustainable, unconscionable in some cases."

Sen. John McCain of Arizona, top Republican on Armed Services and co-sponsor of the bill with Levin, said people are "staggered by the numbers." ... a small combat ship "that is supposed to cost $90 million ends up costing $400 million and has to be scrapped. Airplanes ending up costing, depending on how you look at it, $500 million each."

The bill deals mainly with major weapons systems, which make up only about 20 percent of Pentagon purchases. But the potential savings from greater oversight and tighter controls are massive.

A recent congressional report found that 96 major weapons systems are running almost $300 billion over original cost estimates and are on average 22 months behind schedule.

The bill, the outcome of negotiations between the House and Senate that concluded Tuesday, creates a new director of independent cost assessment who would be assisted by two deputies, one to assess costs and another to evaluate programs. The director would be picked by the president and be subject to Senate confirmation. He would report directly to the secretary of defense, removing current bureaucratic layers between assessors and top officials.

It also sets up an early warning system for programs struggling to keep costs down and takes steps to preserve competition and eliminate contractor conflicts of interests throughout the procurement process.

The measure adds teeth to a 1982 statute that provides for ending programs with severe cost overruns. Programs running 25 percent over the original baseline during development would be subject to reapproval and possible termination.

There would be a presumption of program termination, Levin said, "to be sure we don't throw good money after bad on failing programs."

Field commanders would also be given a greater voice in assessing weapons needs.

The effort to streamline the acquisition process coincides with moves by Defense Secretary Robert Gates to halt or curtail weapons systems that have soared in cost at a time when they are seen as having a diminished role in future wars. The Pentagon has also announced plans to add 20,000 personnel over five years to oversee contracts and cost estimates.

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