Army says avoiding costly weapons system cancellations is a priority

After more than a decade fighting al Qaeda and Taliban foes, Army officials are targeting a new enemy: performance goals that drive up the costs of weapons systems.

The ground service scrapped a number of big-ticket programs in recent years after spending billions of dollars on them — cancellations that have irked many lawmakers.

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 Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) on Wednesday raised concerns about those axed programs, saying the cost of those projects before they were terminated stood collectively at $100 billion.

As Washington turns toward fiscally tight times, lawmakers want to avoid spending hundreds of billions on programs like the Future Combat Systems (FCS) project, the Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter (ARH) “and many, many more” that were eventually canceled, Inouye said.

Army Secretary John McHugh, a former Republican congressman from New York, told senators Wednesday that the top recommendation from a “blue-ribbon panel” should help the service tackle the issue.

The panel, which the service formed to study its acquisition problems, made 76 recommendations for reforming Army weapons buying practices. The commission said the “No. 1 thing” the service needs to do is get a handle on the specs for new systems.

Over the last decade, the Army and the other military services have suffered from what defense acquisition experts call “requirements creep.”

That means more and more specs are added to weapon designs, changes that drive up costs and stretch out development schedules. Oftentimes, fulfilling those requirements is dependent on new subcomponents that themselves need additional years of testing and development.

This cycle can drive costs so far above initial estimates that service or Pentagon officials decide the only move is to cancel the entire project.

In this era of smaller defense budgets, rising federal debt and economic stagnation, lawmakers and Pentagon officials realize the practice cannot continue.

Army officials in recent months have been touting an offspring of the canned FCS effort, the Ground Combat Vehicle (GCV) project, as the poster child for how they will structure acquisition programs in the years ahead.

When an earlier incarnation of the vehicle effort was launched last year, it had more than 900 “tier 1” specs, McHugh told the Appropriations Defense subcommittee, of which Inouye is also chairman.

Army acquisition officials thought, “Here we go again,” and made the “difficult decision” to revise the plan for buying a new combat truck.

“We cut the tier 1 requirements by 75 percent,” McHugh said. The remaining specs were put into two other tiers, “where you can trade costs” and capabilities, he added.

McHugh said service officials are confident this approach will pare the overall cost to taxpayers of buying the GCV fleet.

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey told the subcommittee the service has performed well on less ambitious weapons programs and ones that were fielded rapidly.

Officials are trying to merge the successful practices from those projects into their traditional acquisition process, Dempsey said.

The service is attempting to move new weapons from the drawing board to the field in less than “eight or nine years,” the new Army chief said. Plans with development cycles longer than that “lose credibility,” he added.

Several Defense subcommittee members, including Inouye and Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), questioned the Pentagon’s plans to shrink the Army in coming years.

Senior Pentagon brass announced in recent months that as part of a broader cost-cutting effort, the Army would shed 27,000 soldiers starting in 2015.

Mikulski said the ongoing unrest in the Middle East and North Africa generated by the so-called “Arab Spring” gives her pause about a smaller U.S. ground service.

Forcing regime change to aid pro-democracy elements in that region “means boots on the ground,” she told the Army officials. She questioned whether planning for a smaller force is wise when “things are changing” quickly — “by the tweet.”

Both McHugh and Dempsey stood by the troop-reduction plans, saying they have the ability to alter those plans should global circumstances prompt such a change.