WASHINGTON – A Defense Department official on Thursday refused to identify those responsible for wasting billions of dollars on failed defense contracts, despite a wave of criticism from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) for a lack of accountability.
At the Senate Armed Services Committee, Chairman McCain listed three recent defense programs that have reportedly hemorrhaged billions of dollars in taxpayer money.
The Army has sunk nearly $6.5 billion into Warfighter Information Network-Tactical (WIN-T), a program that was supposed to allow the Army to securely transfer voice and video data from combat. McCain described it as a network “that doesn’t work,” as Army Chief of Staff Mark Milley told Congress earlier this year that the air-and-land satellite system is too “fragile” to survive battle.
McCain also cited the Air Force’s $1 trillion F-35 program, which is mired in dysfunction and inefficient fixed-fee contracts, and the Navy’s stagnant Littoral Combat Ship program, which has a $6 billion cost that continues to grow due to delays. This is all in the face of an “eroding” U.S. military advantage over its adversaries, McCain said.
McCain pointed out that this is not a new issue, while recalling a November 2013 hearing in which he prodded the chief of naval operations over $2 billion in cost overruns for the USS Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier. At the time, the official told McCain that he didn’t know who was responsible for the extra cost.
“There’s no penalty for failure,” McCain said Thursday, while asking for the names of one or two individuals who have been held accountable for the $6.5 billion WIN-T program.
Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Ellen M. Lord refused to offer McCain any specific names. She told the Arizona senator that she would be happy to have a private discussion to discuss what actions have been taken over the past several months to ensure accountability.
“We as a team are working very closely together to look at functions and individuals in OSD and in the services, the duties they are required to perform, and are determining whether or not we have the right people in the right slots, and I don’t want to talk about individuals here in a broad forum, but I appreciate the opportunity to do that behind closed doors in a smaller group,” Lord said.
“When I go to a town hall meeting and tell my constituents that we blew $6 billion, and there hasn’t been anyone fired or replaced or new way of doing things, they’re not really very happy,” McCain said.
He told Lord that he’s happy to receive a closed briefing, but “there’s no reason why you shouldn’t tell the American people.”
“That’s why we have hearings in the Armed Services Committee,” McCain said. “OK? So the next time you come before this committee, and you will, I want to know what you’ve done besides say, ‘We don’t know who’s responsible.’”
“Sir, excuse me,” Lord said. “I want to be on record. We hold people responsible, and we will talk about that.”
“You hold people responsible,” McCain said. “That’s our system of government. Who is it that’s been fired? Any answer? No.”
Army Secretary Mark T. Esper responded: “Sir, I’m not aware of anyone being fired for (Future Combat Systems). To your point, we completely agree.”
Later in the hearing Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) cited a recent Defense Department inspector general report showing that the department had spent $400 million on a 12-month procurement process for spare parts for H-60 helicopters. According to the report, DOD purchased 2.9 million used spare parts from more than 2,000 separate contracts awarded to 590 different contractors, among other glaring inefficiencies.
“This is the kind of stuff that just makes you want to tear your hair out, as somebody who is a former auditor,” said McCaskill, who served as state auditor for Missouri. She asked Lord what roadblocks are keeping DoD from fixing something so “ridiculous.”
Lord said that through data dives in the past few months on acquisitions, “this is the type of thing I keep coming across.” She described the procurement process as “reactionary” and called for holistic reforms to contracting strategy.