The Defense Department’s Foreign Comparative Testing program is supposed to study weapons and combat technology and determine the appropriate gear for U.S. troops. That usually means testing body armor, batteries for battlefield electronics and mine-clearing systems.

But the program strayed from its normal work recently to study the culinary skill of turning thin strips of beef into jerky. The goal, officials say, was to make a beef jerky that was more like a Fruit Roll-Up — tastier and cheaper — than than the traditional grocery store fare.

The project, however, cost taxpayers $1.5 million and is unlikely to improve battlefield performance. And that has left some lawmakers in Congress incredulous that the money wasn’t spent on something more essential, especially in an era of soaring deficits, fiscal cliffs and impending defense budget cuts.

“While our men and women in uniform certainly would welcome new menu options, these dollars could be better spent at this time when sequestration imposed by the Budget Control Act is set to cut billions of dollars from our national defense budget,” said Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who identified the program as an example of unnecessary spending at the Pentagon.

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