Gridlock on spending is 'hidden tax' on defense, Pentagon buying chief says

Pentagon acquisition chief Ashton Carter on Tuesday prodded lawmakers to pass a stand-alone bill to fund defense for the rest of the year. 

With Pentagon spending locked at 2010 levels, military program managers are putting off scheduled tasks on their combat platforms, Carter said.

Such changes will alter program plans and drive up overhead costs, he said, calling it a "hidden tax" on the Defense Department.

The top weapons buyer also reiterated Defense Secretary Robert Gates' call for a $540 billion 2011 defense appropriations measure.

The House has approved a full 2011 defense spending bill that was included in a federal government-wide continuing resolution, but it is short of the department's top line wishes.

Meantime, Carter made clear the years of "double-digit growth" annually for the Pentagon budget are over. For that reason, DoD officials will require cost be a top spec for all new major weapon programs, Carter said.

Keeping prices low will be a major driver for the Navy's new nuclear-powered submarine, the Air Force's new bomber, and the Army's Ground Combat Vehicle (GCV). Holding the line on cost will be a top requirement, as well, for a multi-agency effort to design and build a new helicopter fleet for the president.

"We must shape designs from the beginning with affordability" as a top priority, he said. "We're going into one of those periods where we can't afford everything we can think of."

Carter cited work already done on the next-generation nuclear submarine program as an example. Initial cost estimates were too high, and ultimately rejected by Navy and DoD brass.

The sea service has trimmed the projected cost of each submarine to $6 billion, Carter said. He also revealed the Navy's ultimate price goal is $4.9 billion per sub. Navy officials are planning to buy 12 of the new underwater vessels.

Avoiding cost spikes on major programs will require locking in specs and not changing them late in the development phase or even after a platform is in production, DoD officials and analysts say.

During the last few decades, schedules have been changed and cost estimates surpassed because of constantly changing specs.

House Armed Services Committee Ranking Member Adam Smith (D-Wash.) told reporters last Thursday that for most military systems "good enough is good enough."