- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 12, 2009

WASHINGTON (AP) - Costs are likely to keep growing for two of the Pentagon’s biggest weapons programs as the military pushes to field fighter jets and high tech Army units even before fully proving the technology, according to Government Accountability Office reports released Thursday.

The reports by the government watchdog agency concluded the Army is moving forward with the $159 billion Future Combat Systems program even though some of its technology is unproven and over budget. The Joint Strike Fighter program, which could ultimately cost $1 trillion to build and maintain roughly 2,500 planes, will face even higher costs if the Pentagon accelerates the program while testing continues.

The two are among the largest weapons contracts ever awarded by the Pentagon, and are potential targets for budget cuts as pressure grows on the military to lower spending as the government devotes trillions of dollars to the financial crisis.

President Barack Obama’s overall budget, released last month, also pledged to conduct rigorous reviews of weapons programs to make sure their technologies are proven before they go into production. A bill introduced by Sens. Carl Levin, D.-Mich. and John McCain, R.-Ariz., would set similar requirements. Details on the budget for specific Pentagon programs are expected in April.

Future Combat Systems would outfit Army brigades with tools meant to incorporate high speed communications and unmanned sensors with troops on the battlefield. The program includes flying sensors that take video, robots that hunt for bombs, satellites and giant cannons that can hit targets precisely from miles away. Boeing Co. is the lead contractor on the program, with SAIC Inc. also playing a large role.

But the GAO pointed to “immaturity” in the program, such as a shortage of real-life tests and unknowns about the effectiveness of the high speed communication networks it will rely on. It also recommended that Congress not approve full funding for Future Combat Systems, also known as FCS, until the military gives a complete picture of the budgets involved.

“FCS costs are likely to increase at the same time as competition for funds intensifies between near- and far-term needs in DOD and between DOD and other federal agencies,” the report concluded.

Army spokesman Paul Mehney said the program’s technology was “at a maturity level appropriate for a program at this stage of development.” Boeing said in a statement that most of Future Combat Systems’ technologies are well proven and that some, such as an early version of the robots that search out roadside bombs, are already in use in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“We continue to successfully execute the FCS program to the Army’s plan,” the company said.

The Joint Strike Fighter, also known as the F-35 and built by lead contractor Lockheed Martin Corp., is designed to replace many of the current warplanes flown by the Marine Corps, Navy and Air Force. A total of 2,456 planes will be bought for roughly $300 billion, with another $760 billion expected to be required to maintain the planes during their lifespans.

The GAO reported that the Pentagon expects to step up plans to buy the planes even as they continue to undergo testing to uncover potential problems. By 2015, just a year after all flight tests are expected to be finished, the military will have purchased 684 planes. The accelerated buying schedule will have added $33 billion in costs by that time.

Buying jets while they are still being tested “does not seem prudent,” the report states.

In its response, the Defense Department wrote that some of the GAO’s conclusions are premature since the president’s budget has not yet been formalized. That means its findings are “largely conjectural.”

Lockheed Martin said in a statement that “the overall health of the F-35 program is sound in all areas.”

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