WASHINGTON -- Facing a tight budget, Congress and the Pentagon want to rein in weapons costs by revamping the way the government buys ships, planes and tanks.
Differences over the way to accomplish that raise questions about how successful the effort will be.
Some 20 years ago a commission determined that weapons systems were too expensive and did not reach the battlefield quickly enough. This year, the Government Accountability Office, Congress' auditing arm, reached the same conclusion.
"Two decades later, major weapons systems programs still cost too much and still take too long to field," the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. John Warner, R-Va., said last week at hearings on overhauling weapons buying.
Officials have tried before, memorably after the Pentagon drew criticism in the 1980s for buying $435 hammers and $640 airplane toilets.
Still, the process is marred by cost overruns, production delays and product malfunctions. That has resulted in cancellations of big-ticket weapons programs such as the Army's Comanche helicopter and its Crusader artillery project after billions of dollars were spent.
"It's a real question of who's minding the store. It creates doubt in the investments we're making," said Keith Ashdown, a military expert with Taxpayers for Common Sense.
Lawmakers and the Defense Department agree on the need to do a better job of holding down costs at a time when the military budget is strained by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, hurricane response, rising health-care costs and a ballooning federal deficit.
Pentagon officials favor simplifying existing purchasing requirements. Congress wants more checks and balances.
A House bill would require the defense secretary to certify that all rules were followed when the Pentagon and contractors produce a weapons system. The legislation would make the Pentagon submit alternatives to Congress if costs exceed initial estimates by 15 percent.
A bill in the Senate would require added oversight of contracts and further approvals if the Pentagon wanted to buy a weapons system under relaxed rules meant only for commercial purchases.
"They tend to become more cost conscious in periods of shrinking dollars," said Jacques Gansler, an undersecretary of defense for acquisition in the Clinton administration.
A Pentagon panel formed by Gordon England, the acting deputy defense secretary, is conducting a major review. Its recommendations are expected in November, around the time Congress hopes to complete work on defense bills that include new requirements for weapons-system purchases.
It could take years to put in place a new procurement system.
"There is no quick solution," England told lawmakers. "This is just hard work."
The Pentagon is spending $147 billion this year on researching, developing and producing major weapons systems. That is more than one-third of its $400 billion budget, excluding the billions for the wars.
The government projects that weapons-systems spending will rise to $180 billion by 2011 as the Pentagon seeks high-tech machinery to face future threats.
Congressional auditors reviewed 54 weapons systems this year that cost a total of $800 billion. The GAO found that research and development costs for 26 of them increased by nearly $42.7 billion, or 42 percent, over original estimates, while taking nearly 20 percent longer to develop.
Over the past four years, the report said, the price of the top five weapons systems rose from $281 billion to $521 billion. The initial $79.8 billion investment in the Army's future combat system, a network of manned and unmanned weapons, rose to $108 billion after the program was restructured.
The Joint Strike Fighter's cost jumped by $15 billion to $198.6 billion while the F/A-22 Raptor increased by $5.3 billion to $73.1 billion, limiting the number of aircraft the U.S. can afford to buy.
"Although U.S. weapons are the best in the world, the programs to acquire them often take significantly longer and cost significantly more money than promised and often deliver fewer quantities and other capabilities than planned," the report said.
That mirrored the conclusions of a 1986 federal panel that blamed chronic cost increases and project delays on issues including unrealistic budgeting, cumbersome regulations, instability in available money and inadequate testing.
Ronald Kadish, chairman of the Pentagon panel reviewing the buying system, said, "It still remains plagued by numerous and highly publicized shortfalls."
Congress' concerns peaked with a series of contracting scandals, including the now-canceled Air Force deal to buy and lease refueling tankers from The Boeing Co.
The Army's cancellation of the Comanche and the Crusader also raised eyebrows. The Pentagon poured $6.9 billion over 21 years into the Comanche before scrapping it in 2004. Nearly two years earlier, it dropped the $11 billion Crusader artillery project after spending $2 billion.