WASHINGTON – A Senate measure to fund the war in Iraq would chop money for troops' night vision equipment and new battle vehicles but add $230 million for a tilt-rotor aircraft that has already cost $18 billion and is still facing safety questions.
President Bush's request for the emergency appropriations to cover costs of the continuing war and Hurricane Katrina recovery operations included no money for the troubled V-22 Osprey, which takes off and lands like a helicopter but flies like a plane.
The Marine Corps, however, followed up with a letter to lawmakers endorsing additional V-22s, noting that it is the only active production line capable of replacing four Vietnam War-era CH-46 choppers lost since Sept. 11, 2001.
Critics maintain that it's still a curious choice to be funded in a bill whose defining purpose is to replace equipment worn out or destroyed in Iraq.
The Osprey, manufactured by Bell Helicopter, a subsidiary of Textron Inc., has been in development since the 1980s and has cost the government $18 billion so far. It has suffered numerous setbacks over the years, including two crashes in 2000 that killed 23 people.
The Marine Corps says the program has gotten back on track since then despite an incident last month in which a V-22 momentarily took flight on its own.
To pay for the Ospreys, the Senate Appropriations Committee — guided by the Corps — cut into funding for night vision goggles, equipment for destroying mines and explosives, fire suppression systems for light armored vehicles and new vehicles that can be transported into battle inside the V-22.
The panel insists the equipment cuts won't affect readiness.
Vice President Dick Cheney, as secretary of defense in the first Bush administration, tried to kill the V-22, to no avail. The aircraft is popular with lawmakers, especially those from Pennsylvania and Texas, which host the manufacturing plants.
"They've hijacked the bill to spend money on their toys," said Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a budget watchdog group. "You have the V-22, which isn't even ready for fielding and it's getting money in the supplemental."
The V-22 is but one example of the Pentagon and lawmakers using the mammoth bill to skirt limits on the already rapidly growing defense budget.
For example, there's more than $3 billion in funding for an ongoing overhaul of the Army that the Pentagon admits isn't directly related to fighting the war.
Meanwhile, senators have added $228 million to procure seven C-17 Air Force cargo planes that can't be completed until 2008 at the earliest — and would eventually cost a total of almost $2 billion.
The C-17 cargo plane is manufactured in Long Beach, Calif., by Boeing Co. The line there is now slated to close in 2008 with the completion of a 180-plane inventory. Instead, the $228 million would purchase parts as a downpayment for building seven more planes. It would take at least another $1.6 billion to finish the job.
"If it goes through, you basically force the Air Force to buy another seven planes," said a lobbyist for a rival defense contractor.
The Senate will take up the $106.5 billion Iraq funding bill — which includes $27.2 billion for additional hurricane relief along the Gulf Coast — on April 25. The House passed a companion $92 billion measure last month.
Generally speaking, emergency war funding bills get less scrutiny than the Pentagon's regular budget. And since they provide crucial funding for U.S. troops and equipment, most lawmakers are reluctant to criticize the bills.
However, Senate Budget Committee Chairman Judd Gregg, R-N.H., is taking aim at $3.5 billion the Army requested for creating smaller, independent fighting units. Gregg wants to use some of the money to finance border security initiatives and the Coast Guard's ongoing upgrade of ships, planes and helicopters.
"There's a fair amount of money in this supplemental that is not an emergency. It's essentially an attempt to pick up operational and core needs outside the usual budgeting process," Gregg said. "It's certainly in the multiple billions."
The Pentagon says restructuring the Army belongs in the Iraq spending because it would accelerate transforming 5,000-man brigades into independently functioning units and facilitate troop rotations in and out of Iraq.
But Gregg and others say the Army restructuring should be part of the regular budget and the Pentagon tacitly agrees; next year it will be funded that way.
For now, the inclusion of the expensive restructuring project in the war funding bill is a way to avoid cutting other defense programs.