Veteran appropriator scolds Gates, mostly approves funding shift

House appropriators have partially approved a Pentagon request to use Humvee funding for other platforms needed in Afghanistan — but not before a senior lawmaker had sharp words for the Defense secretary.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates and House Appropriations Defense subcommittee chairman Rep. C.W. Bill Young (R-Fla.) went toe-to-toe last week about the Pentagon’s desire to use $863 million in Humvee funds to purchase intelligence-gathering and other gear for the Afghanistan war.

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Last Wednesday, Gates said the military needs no more Humvees — Young disagreed — and charged Young and the subcommittee with blocking a $1.2 billion request to protect Humvee-maker AM General.

In a letter to Gates, Young tells the Defense secretary lawmakers have cleared the Pentagon to use $613 million of the Humvee funds to buy combat equipment requested by Gen. David Petraeus, the top American commander in Afghanistan. But Young is not taking Gates’s allegations lying down.

“I find it very troubling that you would suggest that my colleagues and I on the subcommittee are doing something that would ‘put American lives at risk,'” wrote Young, quoting Gates’s comments during a March 2 hearing. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

In the letter, obtained by The Hill and dated Wednesday, the top defense appropriator points out his subcommittee “provided the funding” to add additional armor to the military’s Humvee fleet and to “expedite development of the MRAP.”

Both vehicles became essential for U.S. forces during the Iraq conflict.

Young also noted House defense appropriators played a key role in funding enhanced body armor for U.S. troops.

Gates told the panel the Army has no plans to buy more of the AM General-made vehicles, primarily because they cannot be used where improvised explosive devices (IEDs) are employed.

Young points to Marine Corps documents, however, stating that service remains interested in the venerable platform, adding he told Gates this during a Feb. 23 conversation. According to Young, Gates replied that he had no knowledge of such a Marine Corps requirements.

“In fact, our subcommittee’s partial denial of the reprogramming of the [Humvee] funds is out of troop safety,” states the letter. “Our goal is to retain some of these funds, funds that your department requested for [Humvee].”

The letter quotes a Marine Corps solicitation to industry released the same day as the subcommittee hearing seeking information about improving Humvee crew protection. Young called the timing "ironic."

“During the hearing, I asked for your help to work out a compromise that would retain some funding to allow for the new line of more survivable [Humvees] as requested by the Marine Corps,” Young wrote.

“Yet, you simply stated during the hearing that the department no longer needs [Humvees],” the veteran lawmaker wrote, scolding Gates.

In addition, he told Gates he cannot approve using all $863 million from the Humvee account because of “the number of times the Department of Defense starts and stops programs, often after we have sunk billions of taxpayer dollars into them with little to show for it. He then named a few: the Army’s Future Combat Systems (FCS) and Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter (ARH); the Marine Corps-led VH-71 Presidential Helicopter, “and the list goes on.”

“This is simply no longer acceptable,” Young told the secretary, adding one last shot. “The department’s treatment of the [Humvee] program is yet another example of poor program management,” the chairman wrote.

For instance, in 2010, the panel approved the Pentagon’s requested funding for the vehicle, including “a significant increase” for new models for the National Guard.

“Subsequently, however, the department determined that there was no longer a need for these … despite known requirements,” according to the letter. “Since then, you have been unwilling to work with us to find an acceptable solution.”

Young also criticized Gates for knowing about Petraeus’s needs “more than eight months ago,” but seeking approval to shift the funds only last month.

One Pentagon analyst said Young's tone shows as defense spending declines, lawmakers will be less apt to adhere to Gates' desires.

"The lesson of this letter for Mr. Gates is that it's time to go. Members are less willing to defer to his judgment as budgets tighten and memories of Iraq fade," said Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute. "The longer he stays, the more he will be treated like just another defense secretary."

Moving the funds from one account to another requires congressional approval. The Humvee funds in question were first allocated as part of a war-funding bill.

“The money is in a Humvee account. No one wants any more Humvees,” one defense official said last week.

The House-passed 2011 defense spending bill passed recently “doesn’t even have Humvee money in it,” the official said. “So what exactly is the problem here?”

Some defense observers have noted AM General is on of Young’s top contributors of campaign cash. The longtime lawmaker has dismissed any allegations of aiming to aid the company.

He instructed Gates to submit a second reprogramming request to cover the $250 million the panel wants to keep in the Humvee account, and other parts of the broader $1.2 billion request the subcommittee opposes.

Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said in an e-mail response: "The department welcomes action by the subcommittee and will now move to acquire and deploy the approved equipment as rapidly as possible."

This story was last updated at 7:26 a.m. on Thursday, March 10.