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Army told to spend or lose mobile tech funds

Tactical network plagued by delays

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**FILE** Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta (right), accompanied by Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington on Feb. 28, 2012, before the Senate Budget Committee on the Pentagon’s fiscal 2013 budget. (Associated Press)

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.

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Shaun Waterman
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