ON Jan. 7, 1991, Defense Secretary Richard Cheney canceled a $4.9 billion development contract for the Navy's A-12 Avenger ``Stealth'' bomber, saying: ``If we cannot spend the taxpayer's money wisely, we will not spend it.'' He was right - but his move may have come too late. Nearly $3 billion of the taxpayers' money had already been squandered. Some of it may be recovered through the courts, but that could take years. What's worse, the record strongly suggests that senior officials in the Navy and in the Office of the Secretary of Defense knew that the A-12 was in serious trouble, but suppressed the information.
All the key players in the acquisition process knew about the problem. John Betti, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, knew. His principal deputy, Donald Yockey, knew. The deputy director of tactical warfare programs, Frank Kendall, knew. The two Navy acquisition executives - Secretary of the Navy Lawrence Garrett and Secretary Gerald Cann - both knew. And the Navy program manager, Capt. Lawrence Elberfeld, knew, along with a number of others. What did they do with this knowledge? Nothing.
With all the laws and regulations governing defense procurement, the A-12 debacle was not supposed to happen, but it did. Are more laws needed? Probably not. In the case of the A-12, the ``system'' did not fail. The people who are supposed to make the system work failed. Legislation will not solve that problem.
Already, the Navy is rushing headlong into the A-12 successor program, the AX; yet the people who took us down the A-12 road are still on the job. We should know who is responsible for letting the A-12 program get so far out of hand, and we should be sure that those people are not involved in the AX acquisition process.
Thus far, three naval officers have been censured: Admiral Gentz, commander of the Naval Air Systems Command; Admiral Calvert, program executive officer; and Captain Elberfeld, the program manager. In addition, a senior civilian official, Robert Thompson, and four low-ranking civilian employees in contract administration have received reprimands and demotions.
No one has been held accountable in the Office of the Secretary of Defense - certainly not Messrs. Yockey and Kendall. While Mr. Betti was severely criticized in the inspector general's report for failing to vigorously pursue reported A-12 cost and schedule problems, his subsequent resignation on Dec. 12, 1990, was never officially linked to the A-12 disaster.
What is the effect of the punishment meted out so far? Captain Elberfeld is being promoted to rear admiral. Admiral Calvert is still on the job. Mr. Thompson retains his job in Mr. Cann's office. The Navy is trying to retire Admiral Gentz under very generous terms. Mr. Kendall was given a ``meritorious executive rank'' award and a $10,000 bonus for his fine work on the A-12 and other programs, and Mr. Yockey's nomination to the top acquisition post awaits Senate confirmation.
Three billion dollars went down the drain along with the A-12 contract, and we have nothing to show for it. The collapse of the A-12 program means our aircraft carriers won't have a new medium-range bomber for years. Criminal conduct is being investigated by the Justice Department. Vital information was withheld from and by senior officials. Other laws may have been broken. Yet it would appear that, rather than being penalized for their roles in the A-12 debacle, those with primary responsibility for th e program have actually been rewarded for their efforts.
To save Navy air power, to make sure our young men and women have the best equipment, and to conserve our precious economic resources, those involved in this - or any - federal government program must be held accountable for their actions. Without accountability, nothing else Congress or the Pentagon does will matter.