A new supersecret bomber - a Navy project designed to deliver nuclear weapons against the Soviet Union - is turning into another of those all-too-frequent Defense Department scandals. Despite the expenditure of $57 billion, the A-12 Avenger weighs too much, is far more expensive than planned (surprise) and is behind schedule.
Despite its huge expense, the A-12 escaped congressional scrutiny until recently because it was part of the Pentagon's so-called "black budget" for classified projects. But the problems finally became too large to hide.Essentially, the A-12 is a Cold War weapon and is unsuitable for potential Third World conflicts that are the most likely future threat - such as the Persian Gulf crisis.
Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney has threatened to cancel the program, but that most desirable outcome is not likely to happen. Instead, Congress and the Pentagon seem engaged in a program of mutual delay and rewriting of contracts so that the U.S. taxpayer shoulders more of the risk from the companies working on the projects.
The A-12 is just another example of the cozy relationship between Congress and the Defense Department that produces costly projects that are more concerned with political pork than with real defense needs.
In fact, a new study by the Pentagon's cost analyst - considered a troublemaker by the military - says that both Congress and the Defense Department play an intricate power game designed to produce a heavy cash flow for the military and votes and jobs in congressional districts. The realities of U.S. defense are a secondary consideration.
Most Americans will probably recognize the steps in the dance between the Pentagon and Congress.
It starts with the Defense Department minimizing the costs of weapons early in their development. Then the Pentagon spreads the subsequent contracts across districts and states represented by key lawmakers. When the final bill comes due, members of Congress may choke over the size, but they can't kill the project because of the local jobs and votes.
This kind of game results in a military establishment that faces cuts of 25 percent by 1995 - without eliminating any major weapon systems.
The study suggests that a five-member Defense Evaluation Board be named by the president and confirmed by Congress to 10-year terms. Their job would be to serve as independent overseers of military procurement.
While there might be problems with such a board, at least the idea represents a move away from the unsatisfactory current situation where Pentagon planners can manipulate secret budgets for grandiose weapons that may not be what the country really needs.