Congress pores over the ledger; Forcing the Pentagon to be a smart shopper

Few Americans would be surprised at the news that the price for US armaments continues to rise at a steep and steady pace. Cost overruns seem to be an institution at the Pentagon.

There are two new elements to this perennial story, however. First, Reagan administration policies have accelerated and made more obvious the swelling military shopping list. And second, there are clear signs from Capitol Hill and elsewhere that spiraling spending may no longer be business as usual at the Defense Department. Some recent indications:

* A key Senate subcommittee (headed by Republican Sen. John Warner of Virginia, a former Navy secretary) this week voted to halt deployment of the first MX missiles until the administration settles on a less vulnerable place to put them. Strategic considerations played a key role, but so did the $2.2 billion designated for building the first nine missiles and restructuring old Minuteman missile silos to accommodate them.

* The military services recently made their first reports to Congress detailing the 18 weapons systems whose cost rose more than 15 percent over the nine months ending last December. This now is required under the so-called ''Nunn amendment'' to the 1982 budget, named after Sen. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia who holds strong pro-defense credentials.

The military says it can explain why some weapons systems increased by as much as 79 percent in unit cost over that short period. But if nothing else, these new regular reports are certain to demand congressional attention. The lobby group Common Cause heralds the Nunn amendment as ''a breakthrough for congressional control of the military budget.''

* The House of Representatives already has passed legislation to establish an independent inspector general to oversee the Pentagon. The Senate this week will take up a similar proposal as well.

* For the first time, the General Accounting Office (GAO) has been asked by Senate Armed Services Committee chairman John Tower (R) of Texas (one of Capitol Hill's staunchest hawks) to examine ''broad management issues'' at the Pentagon. Senator Tower also has requested the GAO to conduct three audits on the Defense Department's claimed savings, the building of two nuclear aircraft carriers, and multiyear contracting.

* The Army reacted to the 49 percent cost increase for the AH-64 Apache helicopter by saying it would not sign a contract with the manufacturer until cost disputes had been settled. Sen. Barry Goldwater (R) of Arizona found the increase ''incredible,'' and Senator Tower said, ''We're not going to buy these systems at any price.''

The Pentagon is not happy with any of these developments. And in some ways, it does seem to be - at least for the moment - the hapless victim of its own management reforms, including the use of more realistic inflation figures.

In responding to the Nunn amendment requirements, for example, per unit costs on such big-ticket items as jet fighters, submarines, and missiles rise whether a program is increased or cutback.

The Navy's F-14 Tomcat fighter rose 79 percent to $42.2 million per aircraft. Officials say this is because the Navy increased its order from 509 to 845 through 1995, and inflation will continue to compound over that period. Expressed in constant 1969 dollars, the F-14 will have risen less than 2 percent in price.

The Army, on the other hand, cut back its order of Roland missile fire units from 184 to 31. This spread ''sunk costs'' (research and development, for example) over fewer units and thereby increased the cost of each.

In all, the Reagan administration plans to spend $114 billion more than its predecessor on major weapons systems. Nearly $100 billion of this is attributable to buying more weapons, and most of the rest is due to projected inflation, officials say.

The administration has been lauded for its efforts to reform defense procurement. But it is understood that the fight against military waste has just begun.

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