Waxman widens Pentagon probe

The chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee may include a massive military contract, plagued by rising cost estimates and design problems, in his wider investigation of federal contracting abuse at the Pentagon.

In a letter obtained by The Hill, panel Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) last week asked Defense Secretary Robert Gates for documents related to the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV), an amphibious assault vehicle to be used by U.S. Marines in storming beachheads.

ADVERTISEMENT
Waxman has been investigating large federal contractors, particularly those associated with the Coast Guard’s Deepwater program and Iraq contracts. Last summer the California congressman, then the committee’s ranking minority member, released a report studying contracting abuse.

The EFV is the next wave in the Marines’ amphibious assault fleet. Topped with a gun turret, the vehicle is designed to travel over the ocean at more than 20 knots and transport up to 17 Marines to shore. The EFV would be able to fight on land as well, and is armored to protect crewmembers.

Though meeting many of the program’s requirements, design problems have plagued the EFV. During test runs, the vehicle tended to break down every eight hours. The Pentagon is working to certify the program this June, which was triggered by rising costs.

“The key killer has been the reliability and maintenance,” said Bob Work, a vice president at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a defense think tank, of the EFV.

Work added that the EFV’s poor reliability has led to a “major redesign” that has “caus[ed] costs to skyrocket.”

“We are in the process of working with the Marine Corps and have demonstrated tremendous progress on the reliability side,” said Kendell Pease, a vice president for communications at General Dynamics (GD), EFV’s main contractor. “We know what we need to do and we are doing it.”

Waxman, in his letter, was critical of General Dynamics. The chairman cited an independent review by the Navy of the EFV program that said the defense contractor was more interested in the vehicle’s production than in solving its design flaws.

Furthermore, despite the Navy’s issues with GD’s work, the Defense Department in March awarded a new $144 million contract to the firm to continue work on the project, according to Waxman.

Proud of the EFV, Pease said he is happy to work with the chairman in his document requests.   

“We plan to cooperate in any way possible because we have an EFV program that has done exceedingly well,” the GD executive said.

Although the program has run into trouble, the EFV is of high value to the Marines. The vehicle would replace the Marine’s aging fleet of amphibious vehicles.

Yet the EFV’s arrival is still years away — not until 2015 —  and will be smaller than originally expected. The Marines will buy about 500 vehicles, instead of more than 1,000.

“The Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle is the Marine Corps’ No. 1 priority ground program,” a public affairs officer for the EFV program, David Branham, said. “This program is needed.”

In support of the EFV program, Branham pointed to an interview given in March by Gen. James Conway, commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, to several reporters.

Conway said at the time that until the vehicle is available, “the service is in a period of risk.” Conway described scenarios during last year’s conflict between Israel and Lebanon in which the Israeli fleet was caught unawares by new sea-skimming missiles used by Hezbollah — a threat the Marines’ current vehicles would have trouble combating.

Saying the current Marine amphibious fleet needs to be replaced, a CSBA senior fellow and retired Marine, Dakota Wood, offered, “Part of this is why the Marine Corps continue to pour money into this program. If you don’t have anything else in the batter’s box, so to speak, you are really tied into this program.”

Wood said the service should start to consider other alternatives due to the EFV’s price tag. Taking note of the much-coveted Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, Dakota said the EFV “would seem to be a contradiction to the way the armored vehicles are heading.”

“You have this very big, expensive piece of gear that packs in the Marines,” Dakota said. “If you even manage to get this thing onshore, it is anyone’s bet if it will survive in a combat environment based on the emerging threats.”

The EFV may face congressional budget cuts. Funding for the EFV has been reduced by $200 million during this week’s markup due to significant schedule delays and program uncertainty.

“Traditionally, what Congress will do is take away money from a program if it is in trouble to give time to get itself back on track,” Work said. “Waxman is asking the bigger question: ‘Is this program worth it? Where are we headed?’”

No decision has been made yet on whether there will be a hearing or legislation on the EFV, according to a Waxman aide. The Defense Department must respond, however, with the chairman’s requested documents by next Friday, according to his letter.