- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 12, 2012

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is the white whale of the Defense Department — a stealth jet designed to work for all branches of the armed forces — but at a total cost of $1.5 trillion, it’s also a program that analysts say is an epic boondoggle that neither President Obama nor his GOP challenger, Mitt Romney, has a realistic plan to get under control.

What’s worse is that the F-35 is just the tip of the iceberg in what many describe as a sea of waste and mismanagement surrounding the weapons acquisition system at the Pentagon. Even the department’s inspector general says it simply cannot be audited.

“I’ve been involved in this since the ‘60s and I’ve never seen it so badly managed as it was up until very recently,” said Larry Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress who served as an assistant secretary of defense under President Reagan.

“The cost overruns are unprecedented,” he said, explaining that the problem stems from a failure of several successive administrations to appoint a deputy secretary of defense with the kind of hard-core business sense needed to root out nepotism and tighten the screws on profligate spending.

Both Mr. Romney and Mr. Obama talk tough about getting a handle on Pentagon waste, but if the F-35 is any indication, they will have a tough time following through.

In January, Mr. Romney was working a phone bank at his headquarters in New Hampshire and talked with one potential voter about the F-35, according to a report in Politico.

“I was a little disappointed to see the president pull back on the F-35 program,” Mr. Romney said.

His campaign now dismisses questions about what Mr. Romney intended by that remark and said he would tackle cost issues with the F-35 the same way he would go after other Pentagon waste — by holding officials accountable for poorly managed projects.

“Basically, you need to establish clear lines of accountability. There are too many people who are responsible for these programs, and the problem is that nobody’s responsible,” said Jim Talent, a former senator from Missouri who has served on the House and Senate Armed Services committees and is now a special adviser to the Romney campaign.

The lack of accountability, Mr. Talent said, creates a kind of fog around particular acquisition programs, which allows officials to request excessive changes to the requirements that companies are trying to meet for particular projects.

“More requirement creep and less accountability produces acquisition programs that cost too much and take too much time.”

The Obama administration is all too aware of those problems when it comes to the F-35.

As defense secretary, Robert M. Gates attempted to address them in 2010 by firing the program manager, Brig. Gen. David Heinz. Mr. Obama fought with Congress to end production of an alternate engine and, thanks to a veto threat and a change in the makeup of Congress, ultimately zeroed out funding.

The administration also began trimming the number of F-35s that the Pentagon initially planned to buy from Lockheed Martin Corp. — a move that the Romney campaign criticizes as shortsighted.

“If you cut the number you’re going to buy, then you have to spread the upfront costs across a smaller number of final product,” Mr. Talent said.

“Figure out how many you need and then try and buy in volume, then oversee it through a clear chain of command with a few people you’re definitely going to hold accountable and you’ll get, over time, acquisition reform, and that’s basically what the governor plans to do,” he said. “That’s classic management, really.”

Others defend Mr. Obama’s efforts to bring reform to the process, pointing to the moves of Mr. Gates and more recently Leon E. Panetta, who took over as defense secretary last year and promptly set into motion what many hope will be the first full audit of the Pentagon’s books.

Under pressure from Congress, Mr. Panetta has called for the Defense Department to meet constitutional requirements for the audit by 2014, three years ahead of an initial promise of 2017.

Winslow T. Wheeler, who worked on national security issues for 31 years for members of the Senate before joining the Center for Defense Information as an analyst, said that approach is not much different nor more effective than Mr. Romney‘s.

“Both of them are nowhere on this,” Mr. Wheeler said.

He said one of Mr. Romney’s top advisers is Dov Zakheim, who was comptroller under Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and “did nothing — I repeat, nothing — to address the serious and fundamental problem of an unauditable Pentagon.”

The Romney campaign has not responded to requests for an interview with Mr. Zakheim.

As for the Obama administration, “even if they achieve their objectives for this audit plan,” said Mr. Wheeler, “they have a long ways to go for the Pentagon to comply with the constitutional requirement of making a statement of expenses, of where the money went.”

Franklin C. “Chuck” Spinney, a retired Pentagon analyst who won fame during the 1980s for penning a report on reckless defense spending, said the problem has been years in the making.

“Clinton squandered a once-in-a-generation opportunity to clean up after the Cold War ended,” said Mr. Spinney. “Together with [George W.] Bush, they approved the Pentagon’s agenda of defense programs that made the current mess inevitable.

“Obama bought into it as well and made it even worse, as would Romney, if he gets the opportunity.”

Mr. Obama is more open to overall spending cuts within the department, while Mr. Romney wants to spend more now, which advisers say will pay off in the long run with a more stable world economy.

Neither gets the balance just right, said David Johnson, executive director of the Center for Advanced Defense Studies. He noted that Mr. Obama is pursuing tough cuts, but “they’re not necessarily targeted in the right places.”

Mr. Romney’s talk of “peace through strength is not a strategy,” he said. “It basically says we desire to continue to lead the world.”

Mr. Korb agreed and said Mr. Romney’s vision for an expanded Navy — the candidate often says that the fleet is “smaller than it’s been since 1917” — is emblematic.

“Actually, it’s bigger than it was in 2005,” said Mr. Korb. “And its bigger than the next 11 navies in the world combined, including the Chinese.

“And you have to ask yourself, are today’s aircraft carriers technically equivalent to all those old battleships we had in World War I?”