WASHINGTON – The Defense Department's effort to block Iran from obtaining much-needed hardware for its fleet of F-14 "Tomcat" fighter jets has led the military to pull far more than parts from F-14s out of its surplus auctions.
The Pentagon's retired F-14s contain roughly 76,000 components. Many of those parts are usable on other planes and until this year, were sold by the military on the surplus market.
The Defense Department in January halted the sale of all parts from its Tomcats. On Thursday, it disclosed that the suspension went far beyond items from F-14s, and actually sweeps in 163,000 types of components, including parts from other planes and any support equipment that could be used in connection with Tomcats.
"You're talking about things like the nuts and bolts ... to military-unique and -specific things, to ground equipment, to igniters and engine parts," said Dawn Dearden, spokeswoman for the Defense Logistics Agency, or DLA.
"We want to make sure that we're doing the prudent thing here, we want to make sure that we hold onto everything that could be used on the F-14," she said.
The Defense Department stopped the surplus parts sales temporarily as it reviews whether they would endanger national security. Law enforcement experts say Iran is aggressively seeking parts for its Tomcats, the jets made famous by actor Tom Cruise in the movie "Top Gun."
Iran received U.S. permission to buy the fighter jets in the 1970s when it was an ally and now is the only country known to be trying to keep F-14s airworthy. The United States retired its Tomcats last year.
The Pentagon surplus security review will likely be completed this year, Dearden said.
The review comes as legislation moves through Congress that would permanently ban the sale of surplus F-14 parts. The bill, sponsored in the House by Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., and the Senate by Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden, cleared a House committee and needs review by one more before going to the full House and then the Senate.
The bill was first proposed by Wyden in January after The Associated Press reported that middlemen for countries including Iran and China had exploited weaknesses in Pentagon surplus sale security to obtain sensitive military equipment. The gear included missile components and parts for Tomcats and other aircraft. Law enforcement officials are aware of at least one case in which a surplus purchase made it to Iran.
The Pentagon had planned to sell thousands of spare F-14 parts that could be used on multiple types of aircraft, but after the AP's report, suspended the sales and started a full security review of the jet components. It had previously decided to destroy at least 10,000 Tomcat-specific components.
Government Liquidation, the contractor that handles surplus sales for the Pentagon, sent Wyden a letter this week endorsing the legislation, known as the "Stop Arming Iran Act."
"Like you, we feel that no sensitive military equipment should reach Iran," Anthony Humpage, a company executive vice president, wrote Wyden.
Liquidity Services, Government Liquidation's parent, took in about $84 million in the last budget year from its Pentagon surplus business. Its surplus contract expires next year.
Last summer, the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, reported that its undercover review found numerous gaps in surplus sale security. GAO agents bought $1 million worth of sensitive gear, including rocket launchers, by driving onto a base and posing as defense contractors. They used a fake identity to access the Government Liquidation Web site and buy still more, including microcircuits used on F-14s.
Following that report, Government Liquidation took steps at the Pentagon's request to establish new inventory controls aimed at stopping sensitive items from slipping into surplus sales, the company says.
"Before, all our responsibility was was to sell things. Now we scan everything that we receive, run it against two DLA databases and our own buzzwords list to make sure that we don't even offer up anything on our Web site," Humpage said in an interview. The Pentagon, meanwhile, is "trying hard not to give us things they shouldn't," he added.