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Defense force-fed a high-pork diet

Published Sep. 14, 2005

For a quarter of a century, I did duty as a public relations flack for a major military contractor, United Technologies Corp. During that time I came to feel increasingly uneasy, as a taxpaying citizen, about a congressional practice that theoretically benefited me as an employee, inasmuch as it enhanced the sales and profits of my employer.

What troubled me then, and still does, is Congress' penchant, at the prodding of defense contractors, to stuff down the Pentagon's gullet weapon systems it neither needs nor wants.

By dipping into the pork barrel of military procurement, senators and representatives from states with defense plants curry votes from workers and campaign cash from management, all in the name of bolstering national defense and security. The real effect, however, is to corrode defense capability by forcing the Department of Defense to divert to equipment purchases money it needs for other purposes, like training and maintenance.

In a brazen case of pork-barreling, Republican Newt Gingrich has been wielding his singular influence as speaker of the House to dragoon the Air Force into buying an expensive aircraft against its judgment. And it's not a new plane. The C-130 Hercules has been in service for about four decades as a troop and cargo transport. The latest model, updated with newfangled electronics, costs a thumping $60-million per plane.

The Air Force doesn't want any. Nevertheless, during the last three years, Gingrich has engineered the budgeting of $1-billion to buy C-130s, which are built at a Lockheed plant in _ guess where? _ his Georgia congressional district.

The defense budget is supposed to be a blueprint for national military preparedness. All too often it is perverted into a jobs program for politicians and their contractor allies.

For some with leadership clout, the pork barrel overflows with goodies. "Not only were the planes added, but then we were told where to put them," the Air Force chief of staff, Gen. Michael E. Ryan, complained to the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Ryan was referring to a mandate from Congress that the C-130 transports, after being built by Gingrich constituents, be stationed at bases in the home state of Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi.

What rank hypocrisy that these two righteous Republican pooh-bahs, forever spouting off on behalf of smaller government, reduced spending and capital-gains relief for the affluent, should funnel precious tax dollars to advance their own parochial political interests.

The Defense Department has always seemed to me an ungovernable institution, an impenetrable rats' nest of inefficiency, waste and worse. NBC News recently documented instances in which the defense budget was looted through fraudulent contracting practices and phony claims, coupled with slovenly management within the department.

Congressional pork-barreling only compounds the squandering and misuse of defense dollars. Lawmakers who practice it are guilty of arrogance and selfishness in overriding the procurement decisions of our top military leaders and foisting unwanted weapons systems on them just to ring up political points at home.

At $280-billion for the current fiscal year, the U.S. defense budget represents one-third of all the military outlays by all the countries of the world. Yet it's still not enough for our military chiefs. They want more. They say the military is stretched too thin at current funding levels to maintain high readiness and replace aging equipment. So they're asking for an additional $20-billion a year. That would put spending up near where it was during the Cold War.

To talk about a budget of that magnitude in the post-Cold War world is an affront to common sense. The Pentagon gets ample money to maintain the most powerful military force on Earth. It should get no more. It must exercise better management of how it spends the billions it already has. Lawmakers can best help by keeping their hands out of the pork barrel.

Frank Giusti, of Wethersfield, Conn., is retired director of editorial and news services for United Technologies Corp.

Special to the Hartford Courant