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Armed and Ready for Battle

Panel Has Busy Agenda

At the beginning of the year, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) promised a jam-packed agenda for his committee, with hearings on Iraq, Afghanistan-Pakistan issues and the Pentagon’s acquisition process.

So far, he is making good on his promise.

Skelton has held more than 40 hearings already, about a third of which involved the full committee. The chairman acknowledges tackling counterinsurgency affairs in the Middle East and defense acquisition reform are ambitious tasks, but he credits a spirit of bipartisanship and his staff for moving along on the hearings and pending legislation.

Last week, the committee marked up the Weapons Acquisition System Reform Through Enhancing Technical Knowledge and Oversight Act, while the Senate passed its version with some amendments. Now, a House-Senate conference will be scheduled this month to find common ground.

Since March, the Obama administration has been calling for acquisition reform and has offered its full support, increasing the chances of quick passage. Skelton and the ranking member of Armed Services, Rep. John McHugh (R-N.Y.), hope to see the bill ready for the president by Memorial Day.

“It’s doable,” McHugh said.

The WASTE TKO Act calls for minimizing cost overruns and increasing oversight and transparency in the way the Pentagon buys big-ticket weapons programs. The bill was the brainchild of the committee’s new Panel on Defense Acquisition Reform, chaired by Rep. Robert Andrews (D-N.J.). In putting together the legislation the panel cited the Government Accountability Office’s recent report about how the Pentagon experienced nearly $300 billion in cost overruns; about four out of 10 Pentagon acquisition programs were over budget. After the Memorial Day break, the panel will meet again to continue coming up with other recommendations to be incorporated into future legislation.

Skelton plans to follow the WASTE TKO Act by focusing on the defense authorization bill, piracy on the high seas, the wars in the Middle East and cybersecurity. It’s a broad and extensive dossier, which puts into perspective the committee’s importance for the Obama administration, which is wrestling with a busy national security portfolio.

Acquisition reform has been one of the most controversial and time-consuming issues that the committee has taken on thus far, but budgetary affairs are not far behind.

“We have lots of stakeholders. The reality is our work depends on threats out in the field,” said Rep. John Spratt (D-S.C.), a senior member of the panel who also chairs the Budget Committee.

This week, Defense Secretary Robert Gates is expected to appear before the committee to make his case that the country must focus on fighting its “irregular” wars and expand the size of its forces, but to do so without investing in more Cold War relics, such as the F-22 Raptor jets.

During the announcement of his initial fiscal 2010 budget proposal in April, Gates promised to “profoundly reform how this department does business,” a clear endorsement of Congress’ acquisition bills.

“Gates understands the country needs this. And what he is really recommending is taking care of our troops,” Skelton said.

Undertaking such an initiative this year is good news to some Democrats who fear Republicans would call for futuristic weapons in the budget and risk funding programs for the troops.

“The next generation of aircraft, ships, vehicles and weapons will have to compete for dollars with military operations,” said Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii), chairman of the Armed Services Subcommittee on Air and Land Forces.

The proposed $534 billion Pentagon budget — a 4 percent (2 percent in inflation dollars) increase from the previous year — is a drastic change from the Bush years, which opted to separate funding for the wars. The Obama administration has pledged that its current war supplemental request would be its last.

Gates, meanwhile, also announced that the Pentagon would rely on its upcoming Quadrennial Defense Review to evaluate which weapons programs it most urgently needs. Some conservative observers, however, say the committee should look to establish another panel to offer its own conclusions on defense posture.

“The Obama administration has reputedly talked about transparency in government,” said Mackenzie Eaglen of the Heritage Foundation. “A Congressionally mandated panel offers a pragmatic vehicle to ensure transparency in the defense strategy process by creating a hedge against the prevailing opinions in the Pentagon through an alternative and independent evaluation.”

Skelton has not supported the idea, but a Republican aide said some lawmakers are considering it.

After the budget, expect the committee to shift its focus back to the administration’s Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy, which is most likely going to dominate news headlines this summer. Skelton also is shopping a proposal that cracks down on cyberspies, which could help protect the Pentagon from future attacks. Last month, Gates acknowledged alleged cyberspies had retrieved information from the Pentagon relevant to its F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program with Lockheed Martin.

“There will be an effort to create a solid cyber command,” Skelton said recently. “This will receive a lot of attention in our committee. It is the frontier of national security in the purest form.”

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