February 29, 2008 in Nation/World

Army overhauling supply purchasing

Richard Lardner Associated Press
 

WASHINGTON – The Army is ordering a major overhaul of the way it buys supplies for troops in combat zones as the number of criminal investigations into wartime contract fraud nears triple figures.

Chief among the moves is the formation of a new contracting command to better manage military purchasing in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait, according to a memo written by Army Secretary Pete Geren.

To be run by generals, the post will control an enterprise stained by scandal and long unappreciated by other sectors of the Army.

Geren’s one-page memo, dated Jan. 30, directs the Army’s existing contracting agency to be replaced by the new command, which is being designed to have broad authority over the acquisition of items ranging from bottled water to bullets.

The Army Contracting Command will be headed initially by Jeffrey Parsons, a civilian official, an appointment that underscores how few senior Army officers there are with extensive credentials in defense contracting. The position eventually will be filled by a two-star general who will have two one-star generals as deputies.

One deputy will oversee contracting for “expeditionary” forces, which are the troops mobilized for action. The goal is to exercise more control over contracts awarded in places such as Camp Arifjan in Kuwait. Arifjan is a major gateway for U.S. troops as they move in and out of Iraq. Annual spending there has ballooned from $150 million before the start of the war to roughly $1 billion, and along with the increases have come dozens of ongoing fraud cases.

The second deputy will support contracting done by Army bases in the United States and overseas.

The Army also plans to hire 1,400 additional contracting personnel in an effort to expand a work force that was too small and poorly prepared to deal with the heavy demands of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Currently, the Army has about 5,800 contracting employees.

The command’s formation and the planned hirings come just a few months after an independent panel sharply criticized the Army’s ability to award and manage contracts, especially for combat forces.

The panel, chaired by former Pentagon acquisition chief Jacques Gansler, said the Army’s contracting employees were “understaffed, overworked, under-trained, under-supported and, most important, undervalued.”

Those shortcomings created an environment ripe for the contract fraud scandals now plaguing the Army, the panel concluded.

The Army Criminal Investigation Command has 91 ongoing criminal investigations related to contract fraud in Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan, according to spokesman Chris Grey.

Grey said 26 U.S. citizens have been charged with contract fraud – 19 of those are military and civilian government employees – and more than $15 million in bribes has changed hands.

In its 106-page report, the Gansler panel rebuked the Army for sending a “skeleton contracting force” into Iraq to support the troops.

“Alarmingly, most of the institutional deficiencies remain 4 1/2 years after the world’s best Army rolled triumphantly into Baghdad,” the panel said in its Oct. 31 report.

© Copyright 2008 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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