Defense reveals program cost estimates

The Pentagon has revealed long-term cost projections for several priority weapon systems. The high-stakes move by a department that typically keeps such data under lock and key is seen by some analysts as a way of putting additional pressure on Congress to refrain from draconian cuts to the Defense budget.

‪The 10-year cost estimates for programs to design and build new bombers, a nuclear-armed submarine and a combat truck were revealed in a Nov. 14 letter from Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to lawmakers. ‬

‪The Pentagon’s decision to allow a rare peek inside its 10-year spending plans likely will thrust those programs into the debate about defense spending, which is expected to rage through 2012. ‬

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“There’s no doubt DOD took a risk in putting this out there,” said Matthew Leatherman, an analyst at The Stimson Center. “These numbers should be a driver of the debate next year. Without them being public, DOD could have probably taken some [programs] off the table.”‬

‪Leatherman said it is unclear why “a department whose biggest advantage is its control over budget numbers” decided to insert the program figures into its letter. The document was meant to show the special congressional supercommittee the kinds of big-ticket items that would be cut if it fails in its mandate to cut a minimum of $1.2 trillion from the federal budget.‬

‪The letter “was designed to scare Congress into cutting a deal if the supercommittee fails,” Dov Zakheim, a former Pentagon comptroller, told The Hill on Monday. “Panetta did what he had to do.”‬

‪The supercommittee’s failure could be made official at any moment, which would mandate $600 billion in national defense cuts over the next decade.‬

‪The letter stated that the Pentagon expects to spend $18 billion on the new bomber project, and $7 billion on another effort to build new submarines armed with nuclear-tipped missiles. It also shows a planned $8 billion to modernize the ballistic missile portion of the nation’s nuclear triad. All those figures had previously been kept out of public view.‬

‪The department also is projecting to spend another $22 billion on the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) program over the next decade, and $80 billion on the F-35 fighter program.‬

‪The public disclosure of the program budget figures was surprising for some analysts and former officials.‬

‪But Zakheim said Panetta had little other choice but to use the numbers in his efforts to “scare the Congress into doing something.”‬

‪With President Obama having threatened to veto any legislation that would cancel the $600 billion in Defense cuts, Zakheim said the defense secretary “has very little maneuver room.”‬

‪But could pulling back the curtain on the size of those programs come back to bite the Pentagon?‬

‪“They have provided more fuel for a [budget] debate they have tried to stifle,” Leatherman said, referring to department officials.‬

‪In addition to pressing lawmakers to turn back some or all of the automatic cuts, Panetta’s letter also makes an appeal for Congress to grant DoD greater flexibility in implementing the $600 billion in cuts.‬

‪“Absent congressional approval, current law does not provide flexibility,” according to the letter. “It dictates that sequester cuts must be applied in equal percentages to each program, project and activity.”‬

‪The resulting across-the-board 23 percent cut would drive up the per-platform costs of weapon programs and make military construction projects unaffordable, Panetta told lawmakers. “You cannot buy three quarters of a building,” he said.‬

‪Pushing for a bigger — or total — say in what gets cut likely will be the Pentagon’s next move, Leatherman said. “It seems clear DoD seems intent on negotiating the terms of sequester,” he said.‬