A multi-billion dollar defense contract

Two weeks before the sequester!

About 5 pm ET every day, the Department of Defense releases its list of contracts awarded during the past 24 hours. A lot of them are for basic necessities: food service concessions, ammunition, fuel, spare parts, trucks. You'll occasionally see a big cyber-security contract. A lot of the juicer secret stuff gets kept a secret. Watchdogs use the releases to tally up the amount of money that major defense contractors get each year, at least from the portion of the Pentagon's budget that is public.

Stipulate: The Department of Defense needs to test and evaluate its programs. However, given the projections of doom and gloom offered by all the service chiefs and commanders everywhere, a contract worth as much as $5 billion over 5 years cannot slip by without some notice. Today, the DoD said it will give the John Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory $2.96 billion dollars for "research, development, engineering and test and evaluation programs throughout the DoD." If the Navy says so, the value of the contract can rise to $4.9 billion.

In return, Hopkins' engineers, who are some of the best anywhere, promise to provide more than 11,000,000 staff hours to various projects. The APL, about as old as the national security state itself, does mostly defense work. Last year, the Ballistic Missile Defense Agency paid it $1 billion to modernize Aegis combat systems. APL engineers are behind many of the MDA's successful missile defense intercepts and designed the backbone for the Pentagon's future internet, the Global Information Grid.

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The DoD release stresses that no actual money is being awarded today; the values are simply ceilings for work performed within the scope of the overall project. And as an educational institution, the APL is a non-profit.

Still, the timing is curious, if only because it is coincident with an effort by the Pentagon to be publicly frugal.

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Marc Ambinder

Marc Ambinder is TheWeek.com's editor-at-large. He is the author, with D.B. Grady, of The Command and Deep State: Inside the Government Secrecy Industry. Marc is also a contributing editor for The Atlantic and GQ. Formerly, he served as White House correspondent for National Journal, chief political consultant for CBS News, and politics editor at The Atlantic. Marc is a 2001 graduate of Harvard. He is married to Michael Park, a corporate strategy consultant, and lives in Los Angeles.