Pentagon asks Congress to OK account for quick equipment buys

The Pentagon is asking Congress to green-light a spending account that it could use to quickly buy and ship weapons systems for troops in combat. 

One senior official says setting up such a fund is even more important now that defense budgets are expected to shrink.

The Defense Department and senior lawmakers consider the purchase of the military’s Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicle fleet — conducted largely outside of DOD’s traditional acquisition system — to be the Pentagon’s biggest acquisition accomplishment in some time.

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Now they are searching for ways to create a formal system for making similarly speedy buys.

“The department would like to work with you to identify better mechanisms for obtaining funding to begin to respond to [urgent operational requirements] before the full reprogramming sources are found,” Pentagon acquisition chief Ashton Carter told House appropriators on Wednesday.

“For many years now, the department has requested a fund for this purpose,” Carter said. “We have requested a ‘Joint Urgent Operational Needs’ response fund in the fiscal year 2012 budget request consisting of $200 million equally divided between the Overseas Contingency Operations portion of the request and the base budget.”

The Pentagon has been able to buy things outside its cumbersome purchasing system, including the MRAPs and intelligence-gathering airships, by working with lawmakers to shift funds within the annual defense budget.

But officials say that process — known as reprogramming, in defense parlance — is too slow.
The Pentagon buying boss said the re-programming process is “not ideal,” since “significant delay can occur in identifying a source of funds.”

“The value of the [proposed] fund is that execution can begin before the full reprogramming process is complete,” Carter told the House Appropriations Defense subcommittee. “This can save months, and thus save lives and ensure mission success.”

Senior defense officials have lobbied lawmakers for the fund before. It would strip from lawmakers the ability to approve, shoot down or alter funding shifts.

This time, however, Carter invoked shrinking defense budgets as a reason the new account should be set up.

“In this time of fiscal constraint, finding an available source of execution year funding, even for an urgent need, is becoming increasingly difficult,” he said.

During the session, Carter said defense brass are certain the George W. Bush-era years of unbridled Pentagon budget growth are over.

Congress is increasingly supportive of expedited weapons purchases, especially for materiel needed in Afghanistan.

The 2011 National Defense Authorization Act, in fact, requires DOD to establish a formal rapid-acquisition process. The law states such a process should only be used to buy items needed in less than 24 months.

“We are implementing this legislation, and you can have confidence that funding provided in the [proposed] fund will be used only for items that are truly urgent and near-term,” Carter told the appropriators. “We are willing to work with you to ensure that expenditures from the fund are made with full notice to the congressional defense committees, and I ask that you work with us to expand our toolkit to manage the funding side.”

Subcommittee ranking member Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.) gave a strong endorsement to the idea of fielding weapons systems faster.

“If you could do these developments in a more rapid way,” Dicks said, “that would have tremendous support up here.”

He and other subcommittee members spent ample time during the two-hour session prodding Carter to speed up the Pentagon’s acquisition process.

One of the biggest problems within the Pentagon’s weapons acquisition portfolio is that too often, programs are started under shaky terms, then head down a “cul-de-sac,” Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) said. “They come back … and we stop them.”

Several other subcommittee members voiced concerns about “starting and stopping” programs, which drives up costs. Like Dicks and Moran, they called for the Pentagon to more often use the emerging rapid-acquisition approach.