Image: Air Force capsule
A prototype of part of a travel capsule that the Air Force can use for senior officers and civilian leaders is shown in an image released by the watchdog group Project on Government Oversight.
NBC News
updated 7/18/2008 7:07:06 PM ET 2008-07-18T23:07:06

Air Force officials are denying allegations that millions of dollars appropriated for the war on terrorism are being diverted to build luxury air accommodations for VIPs to travel around the world.

The Washington Post reported on its Web site Thursday night that the Air Force's top leadership sought to spend counterterrorism money on "comfort capsules" to be installed on military planes that carry senior officers and civilian leaders.

But an Air Force spokesman said the service is drawing the money for the project from elsewhere in its budget. Lt. Col. Mike Paoli said the service had requested that the project be included in a supplemental budget for the war on terrorism, but Congress rejected the request. The supplemental war budget is supposed to directly fund troops in combat zones.

"No (terrorism) money is being used for this," Paoli said.

The capsules are basically mobile conference rooms that, from the outside, look like large boxes; Defense Secretary Robert Gates travels in one nicknamed the "silver bullet." The capsules can be moved from aircraft to aircraft to provide a private room for traveling VIPs, including senior officers and civilian leaders, such as members of Congress. Paoli said much of the travel using the capsules would be to combat zones.

A watchdog group called the Project on Government Oversight alleges that the Air Force is spending large amounts of money to buy three new capsules and equip them with "world-class" luxuries.

Among the luxury items cited:

The watchdog group alleges that the Air Force intends to spend $113,000 to reupholster the leather chairs to Air Force blue and to upgrade the wood tables to cherry.

The Air Force defended the project.

"That's bunk," said Paoli, the Air Force spokesman. "The carpeting comes from Home Depot, not Ethan Allen." He added that the capsules are "less than business-class standard" and "really not that nice."

But the Post reported that internal Air Force e-mails provided by the watchdog group showed pressure on lower-ranking officers to create what one described as "world class" accommodations exceeding the standards of a regular business-class flight. A military officer who spoke to the Post on condition of anonymity said the project had provoked widespread contempt among lower-level personnel.

The prototype capsule cost the Air Force $2.7 million, and the two subsequent ones should come in around $1.9 million each, Paoli said. He said the newer capsules fit into more airframes, including Air Force C-17s, C-130s and KC-10s.

"The demand for (distinguished visitor) travel rose significantly with the global war on terror, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan," he said, adding, "the demand has overtaxed our ability."

"An American would want their senior leaders to travel comfortably," Paoli said, "and there is more demand for travel than we have aircraft to support."

The Air Force contends that the new capsules are more cost-effective than building new $50 million planes. "They are not opulent, they are not plush. They are practical," he said.

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