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Listening to the admiral

Of all Americans, who best knows submarines? If you answered Adm. Hyman Rickover, you would probably be right. The outspoken admiral visited Congress this week to testify about submarine shipbuilding operations and cost overruns. Several of his observations warrant close attention by the US public.

Admiral Rickover challenges the current Navy procurement practice of awarding contracts to the lowest bidder.His argument: too often a bidder deliberately sets contract terms unrealistically low -- only to shove up the price with claims for alleged "overruns" at a later time.

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The current Navy shipbuilding process, he said, "is conducive neither to economy, efficiency nor quality."

Admiral Rickover proposes a one-year statute of limitations on submission of claims for overruns. He also proposes that the Navy be allowed to issue contracts to firms that are not necessarily the lowest bidders, and that the Pentagon consider paying firms a set management fee for using their shipyards for construction work.

Having the Navy actually build its own submarines, as the admiral urges, is perhaps questionable at a time when the federal government is finally turning many of its operations over to private industry. But the admiral's remarks on cost overruns and construction awards should not be taken lightly by lawmakers. Procurement makes up half the Pentagon budget. And the administration is now proposing a massive and long-term weapons construction program adding up to billions of dollars. Taxpaper dollars.

Why not monitor that construction program as alertly as possible? Congress did that during World War II with the Truman Committee. Lawmakers should well consider Admiral rickover's proposals on procurement with an eye to ensuring "economy, efficiency and qual ity." Well-managed procurement programs would lead to well-built and less costly weapons systems.

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