A Dacia Sandero Stepway automobile, produced by Renault SA, sits on display on the second day of the Paris Motor Show in Paris, France. (Photographer: Balint Porneczi/Bloomberg) 

Why the Pentagon Bought Romania a ‘Cheap and Cheerful’ Hatchback

(Bloomberg) -- Nobody at the Pentagon can quite figure out why U.S. taxpayers bought a Dacia Sandero Stepway 2 for the Romanian defense ministry, but it’s apparently one of those things allies do to smooth relations.

Why the Pentagon Bought Romania a ‘Cheap and Cheerful’ Hatchback

It’s a mystery because the Dacia isn’t a fighter jet, a missile system or a tank. It’s a small hatchback, described by one auto reviewer as “cheap and cheerful.”

Former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who departed his job with the arrival of the new year, approved the U.S. Navy spending $2.9 million from a fund for “extraordinary expenses” to pay local contractors for construction of a perimeter road around a base in Romania that houses the U.S.’s top ground-based missile defense site in Europe -- and to foot the bill for the car along the way.

‘International Relations’

“I believe that the payment will avoid harm to international relations between the U.S. and Romania as well as adverse public opinion,” Mattis wrote defense lawmakers in October to inform them that the previously undisclosed expenditure would be made on Nov. 19.

Former Pentagon Comptroller Mike McCord said in an email that it’s “unusual, regardless of funding source, I believe, to use U.S. funds to buy a vehicle for a host nation on host nation soil, as opposed to the more understandable case where we might buy a vehicle to support a coalition partner in a theater of operations like Afghanistan.”

The payment to Romania’s Ministry of National Defense covered funds that Navy personnel with U.S. Naval Forces-Europe-Africa headquarters in Naples, Italy, erroneously obligated in 2016 and 2017 without proper authority. Payment was stopped before those funds were transferred.

The Romanian payment is little more than a rounding error for a department responsible for the lion’s share of the $716 billion national security budget that Congress approved for this fiscal year. Yet it demonstrates the sometimes small and mundane steps that Mattis has taken to strengthen bonds with allies, in this case a NATO member that hosts a key U.S. weapons system.

In his resignation letter to President Donald Trump, Mattis indicated the president has slighted those relations, writing that “our strength as a nation is inextricably linked to the strength of our unique and comprehensive system of alliances and partnerships.”

Perimeter Road

The $2.9 million went primarily for work to design and construct a 12.4-kilometer (7.7-mile) perimeter road at the Deveselu military base in southern Romania. It’s occupied jointly by Navy support personnel and Romanian forces and is the site of the U.S. Aegis Ashore Missile Defense installation intended to intercept Iranian missiles fired at Europe.

Pentagon spokesman Eric Pahon referred comment to the Navy. Captain John Perkins, a spokesman for the command in Naples, said in an email that officials last year asked the navy secretary to approve the funds using the service’s “emergency and extraordinary expense authority as the appropriate means to make this payment” because “the perimeter road will help Romanian forces provide better external security” for the base.

Mattis said in his letter that contractors in Romania “who are executing the project have pursued legal action for payment against the Romanian Ministry of Defense.”

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