The Pentagon is planning deep spending cuts this year to a new mobile computing network for soldiers — a move that critics say punishes Army technology buyers for not spending appropriated funds fast enough.
The story of the Warfighter Information Network-Tactical (WIN-T), its supporters say, illustrates the perversity of Washington’s appropriations and procurement system, where ongoing programs are penalized for not spending money according to schedule.
“You can’t just take money away if it isn’t spent on time,” said retired Marine Corps Gen. Arnold L. Punaro, now a consultant and a member of the Pentagon’s Defense Business Board. “It is easy [for a project] to fall behind, [but program managers] can catch up again quickly. But if you take the money away, they have no way to get back on track.”
An Army spokesman declined to outline the proposed spending cuts for WIN-T, saying the multibillion-dollar project remains “integral to the Army’s network modernization strategy.”
“The Army is faced with large emerging transportation and fuel bills,” and is following rules requiring each military service to “pay their own bills,” said spokesman George Wright.
‘A death spiral’
Retired Army Maj. Gen. Stephen V. Reeves, a former program manager and now a defense business consultant, said delays on a project — as a result of slow appropriations or other reasons — generally raise its costs.
“If you can’t [spend money] to the original schedule, that raises your costs because you have overhead … leases, utility bills, guys sitting around waiting,” Mr. Reeves said.
“You get into a death spiral,” where rising costs and lengthening delays feed each other until the program is unable to deliver much of anything, he said. But “there are no clean kills. … The program goes on life support,” sustained by a relatively small dribble of taxpayer funds.
If an appropriations bill for the fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1, is not enacted until the following spring, Mr. Reeves said, “effectively, you’ve only got four or five months to spend a whole year’s appropriation.”
Repeated delays cause a “bow wave of unspent money,” he said, adding that the situation gives program managers incentives to spend funds quickly, not well.
Former Pentagon Comptroller Dov Zakheim defended the practice of taking back unspent funds.
“The efficient thing to do,” he said, “is to take money from the programs that are spending it more slowly.”
Programs that, by the middle of the fiscal year in March, are not spending as planned, need to be trimmed, Mr. Zakheim said.
“If they’re not spending it by midyear, come August and September, they’re throwing money at anything,” he said. “We’ve all heard the horror stories about government spending in the closing weeks of the fiscal year. … They’re true.”
“The comptroller staff is a highly professional group,” he said. “This isn’t a meat ax.”
Mobile battlefield intel
The schedule for the WIN-T project has been slowed by delays in testing, current and former officials said.
The WIN-T is designed to bring high-speed wireless computing, mobile phones and live-streaming video to the front lines, and its backers say imminent spending cuts send the wrong message about how to buy technology.
“It’s a really, really important program,” Mr. Punaro said. “It’s how the war fighter is linked to the Global Information Grid” — the military’s computer network.
“Based on what I know now, [anticipated cuts] would be shocking … a very bad mistake,” he said.
WIN-T is designed to bring to the battlefield the kind of mobile broadband network that any user of a laptop or a smartphone in a Starbucks takes for granted.
But the military has to provide it at a moment’s notice, in any corner of the globe, regardless of the terrain or weather, and in a way that is secure from enemy hackers and robust enough to survive physical attacks.
Such capabilities do not come cheap. Since starting the program in 2008, the Army has spent more than $2.4 billion with lead contractor General Dynamics on the first two stages of the program.
The company says 97 percent of Army units are equipped with the first stage, which provides network access for commanders at the battalion level — units of about 1,000 soldiers.
The proposed cuts affect the second stage, which is to bring the broadband network to mobile commanders and units as small as 100 troops, starting this year, according to a May 30 congressional briefing by Army officials.
The cuts to WIN-T, which could be as much as half of the $813 million appropriated for it this year, are not part of the half-trillion dollars of deficit reduction savings the Pentagon already is committed to starting next year.
Instead, they are part of a multibillion-dollar set of changes to the current budget that the Pentagon will seek from lawmakers to cover $3 billion in higher-than-expected fuel costs.
Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta testified at a Senate hearing last week that the overage was caused by higher oil prices, the costs of keeping extra naval forces in the Gulf during the spring, and the $100 million-a-month costs of flying fuel into Afghanistan because Pakistan has closed supply routes.
The package of proposed budget changes, known as an omnibus reprogramming request, will be sent to Congress next week, said Army Lt. Col. Elizabeth Robbins, a Pentagon spokeswoman.