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Published: Thursday, 2/26/2009

Reining in military costs

PRESIDENT Obama's decision to review an order for a new generation of presidential helicopters won't solve the problem of cost overruns in military procurement, but it's a welcome start.

The fleet of 28 high-security helicopters ordered from Lockheed Martin after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks has nearly doubled in cost to $11.2 billion, making each chopper - at $400 million - more expensive than any of the specially outfitted Boeing 747 jets dubbed Air Force One when the President is on board.

That's a ridiculous amount, but it's only a drop in the bucket according to a federal Government Accountability Office report last fall that said that the military's top 95 procurement programs were nearly $300 billion over budget since 2000.

Michael Sullivan, the GAO's director of acquisition and sourcing management, along with other experts, told a Senate panel in September that the process for identifying and filling military needs was broken. They said that contractors can make bids they know are unrealistically low because officials are loathe to let weapons programs fail.

But contractors are not solely to blame, as the current cost overruns in the VH-71 helicopter program make clear. The Bush administration's security requirements for the helicopter were upgraded frequently to add electronic equipment that did not yet exist, according to the Washington Post, and the Pentagon went ahead with the project before design and testing of key components had been completed.

Nowhere else in the public or private sectors is so much spending permitted with so little oversight and accountability. What President Obama has done by declaring that military procurement has "gone amok" and the current fleet of presidential helicopters "seems perfectly adequate" is to put defense contractors and military leaders on notice that "change" is coming to them as well.

It's about time.

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