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Anti-terror money sought for luxury

But the Air Force has run into congressional objections to its 'comfort capsules,' designed for top brass.

July 18, 2008|R. Jeffrey Smith | Washington Post

WASHINGTON — The top Air Force leadership sought for three years to spend counter-terrorism money on "comfort capsules" for military planes to ease the travel of senior officers and civilian leaders -- with at least four top generals involved in design details such as the color of the capsules' carpet and leather chairs -- according to internal e-mails and budget documents.

Production has begun for the first capsule -- two sealed rooms that can fit in the fuselage of a large aircraft -- and four mobile pallets containing plush, swiveling leather chairs with footrests.

Air Force officials say the new capsules are necessary to ensure that leaders can talk, work and rest comfortably in the air. But the top brass' preoccupation has alienated lower-ranking Air Force officers familiar with the effort, as well as congressional staff and a nonprofit group that calls the program a waste of money.

Air Force documents spell out how each capsule is to be "aesthetically pleasing and furnished to reflect the rank of the senior leaders using the capsule," with beds, a couch, a table and a 37-inch flat-screen monitor with stereo speakers.

The effort has been slowed by congressional resistance to using counter-terrorism funds for the project and by internal deliberations about generals' demands for modifications.

One request was that the leather for the seats and seat belts in the mobile pallets be Air Force blue instead of brown and that seat pockets be added. Another was that the table be darker.

Changing the seat color and pockets alone was estimated in a March 12 internal document to cost at least $68,240.

In all, for the last three years the service has asked to divert $16.2 million from the war on terrorism to the capsules. Congress has twice told the service no, including in an August 2007 letter from Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) to the Pentagon ordering that the money be spent on a "higher priority" need.

Officials say the Air Force nonetheless decided last year to take $331,000 from counter-terrorism funds to cover a cost overrun, partly stemming from the design changes, although a senior officer said in response to inquiries that it would reverse that decision.

The internal Air Force e-mails, provided to the Washington Post by the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight and independently authenticated, make clear that lower-ranking officers on the project have been pressured to create what one described as "world-class" accommodations finer than a business-class flight.

"I was asked by Gen. [Robert H.] McMahon what it would take to make the [capsule] . . . a 'world-class' piece of equipment," an officer at the service's Air Mobility Command said in a March 2007 e-mail to a colleague, referring to the command's top officer then. "He said he wanted an assurance . . . that we would be getting a world-class item this week."

Air Force officials say the program dates from a 2006 declaration by Air Force Gen. Duncan McNabb that existing seats on transport planes, including some that match those on commercial airliners, might be fine for airmen but were inadequate for the brass. McNabb was then the Air Mobility commander; he is now the Air Force's vice chief of staff. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates nominated him in June to lead the military's Transportation Command.

Explaining his instructions to subordinates, McMahon said he used the term "world-class" "in just about everything I discuss. . . . That represents an attitude." He said he wanted to "create an environment" that passengers "would be proud of," the government would be proud of and "the people of the United States" would be proud of.

Construction of what the Air Force initially termed the new Senior Leader Intransit Comfort Capsules began under a contract paid from general Air Force funds. One of the 18-by-9-foot capsules has been partly completed.

McMahon said the program has recently been downsized from 10 capsules to three, plus the four pallets fitted with swiveling leather chairs, known as Senior Leader Intransit Pallets.

Because of the cutback in the number of capsules and pallets, the program is currently estimated to cost $7.6 million.

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