March 3 (Bloomberg) -- Defense Secretary Robert Gates yesterday chided a key House committee for failing to approve a budget shift he says is needed urgently to protect troops in Afghanistan.
Three of the four primary defense spending committees in Congress have approved taking $900 million from funds set aside for AM General LLC Humvee vehicles the Army says it doesn’t want. Gates seeks to use the money for enhanced intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance requested by General David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan.
Appearing yesterday before the panel that has yet to act, Gates told the House defense appropriations subcommittee that the budget shift is “a matter of grave concern and urgency” for the safety of U.S. soldiers. “We should not put American lives at risk to protect specific programs or contractors,” Gates said.
Florida Republican Representative C.W. “Bill” Young, the subcommittee chairman, said the committee needs to examine the Pentagon’s rationale more closely before acting, because the Army previously said it needed the vehicles.
Gates, in closing remarks at a hearing on the fiscal 2012 budget, told the panel that “our troops need this force protection equipment and they need it now.” Every day of delay, he said, means “the lives of our troops are at risk.”
Celeste Ross, a spokeswoman for South Bend, Indiana-based AM General, said in an e-mail it was “not appropriate to comment” on Gates’s remarks.
Young, a Florida Republican, said in an interview after the hearing, that the committee “is going to take care of the ISR money,” referring to intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. He said Petraeus had a valid requirement.
Still, “in the last couple of years, any time we tried to cut back on the Humvee we were told we can’t do it, the requirements are so great,” Young said. “We’ll resolve the issue” while seeking another source of funding for Petraeus’s request, he said.
Young said he had no parochial interest in the Humvee, which is built in Mishawaka, Indiana. The engines are built in Franklin, Ohio, by AM General’s General Engine Products LLC.
“The only thing made in my district for the Humvee is the release button for the seatbelt,” he said. “That’s all that’s done in my district.”
Still, Young since the 2006 election cycle has been one of AM General’s top campaign contribution recipients, according to Open Secrets, a public interest group. Young in the 2010 election cycle received $5,000 of $30,500 AM General gave to House Republican candidates, according to the group’s figures.
He received in the 2008 election cycle $10,000 of the $27,000 AM General gave House Republican candidates, and $6,000 of $48,000 in the 2006 cycle to Republican candidates, according to the group’s figures.
Gates said the U.S. has over 180,000 Humvees, of which 154,000 are in the Army. While Gates acknowledged the vehicle has been a “workhorse,” he said the Army “determined more than a year ago we have more than enough.”
The reprogramming request said the Humvee “has demonstrated that it cannot survive in a battlefield situation that involves improvised explosive devices and other lethal threats.”
The company has 3,885 Humvees on order for Afghan security forces using $579 million in fiscal 2009 and 2010 funds, according to Pentagon data.
U.S. commanders forecast that Afghan forces will need an additional 5,116 vehicles that will be paid for with fiscal 2011 Afghan Security Force Funds, the Pentagon said in a Feb. 8 information paper to Congress.
‘Persistent Stare’ System
The shift of dollars supports a series of actions and programs that “General Petraeus believes are critical to the warfighting activities in Afghanistan,” said the reprogramming document.
The largest shift of fund requested is $629 million for a “Ground-Based Persistent Surveillance System” described as a “persistent stare system that enhances force protection.”
Almost $74 million is shifted into U.S. Special Operations Command missions and equipment, including $13.1 million to increase to 600 hours from 200 hours the planned flying time of Boeing Co. ScanEagle drones that have use in counter-terror missions.
The Boeing ScanEagle weighs 40 pounds and has a wingspan of 10 feet (3 meters). The planes, under the direction of seven-member Navy Special Warfare teams, have flown more than 5,600 hours of reconnaissance since November 2008.
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