By Ron Wassom, retired colonel, USAF
Our elected leaders in Washington D.C. are making far-reaching decisions regarding proposed cuts to our national defense budget. Regardless of the outcome of the sequestration debate, our Armed Forces are entering an era where they are required to do more with much less.
This is a potentially perilous situation given the backdrop of recent world events. Iran is steadily goose stepping toward nuclear weapons and demonstrating a variety of delivery systems. The Middle East turmoil is growing as the hostage crisis in Algeria sadly punctuated. On the other side of the globe, North Korea is becoming less predictable and more menacing.
As the budget belt-tightening and increasing national security threats collide, legislators in Washington would do well to keep our limited resources focused on defense systems that provide the best bang for the taxpayer’s buck. That’s what makes the U.S. House of Representatives’ decision to fund the Medium Extended Air Defense System (MEADS) in its Continuing Resolution (CR) last week so shocking. The earmark for this missile program that will never protect a single warfighter: $380 million.
MEADS, a multi-national medium-range missile defense program among the U.S., Italy, and Germany, has routinely been over budget and behind schedule during its 18-year history. Some estimates put the cost overruns in excess of $2 billion. Not surprisingly, in 2011 the Pentagon cancelled the planned procurement of MEADS, stating that it could not afford it in this cost-conscious budget environment.
But in a lesson on how to keep a dying program out of the grave, the primary MEADS contractor and a sparse number of supporters on Capitol Hill have continued to push for design and development funding, despite the objections of both the House and Senate Armed Services Committees.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) called MEADS a “waste of money.” Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) perhaps best summed up congressional sentiment: “Especially in these times of budget uncertainty, every dollar spent on MEADS is a dollar we don’t have to provide our troops the training and weapons they need to protect themselves and our country.”
MEADS advocates and our cash-strapped allies have routinely used hefty “termination fees” as a way to perpetuate MEADS funding. And, in fact, House appropriators claimed that the $380 million earmark in the CR was to be used solely to pay the costs to terminate the programs.
But that excuse is nothing but a red herring. According to recent media coverage, Sen. Ayotte has Pentagon documentation in hand that would absolve the U.S. of paying any termination fees. The senator’s office proclaimed that U.S. funding commitments are subject to the “availability of appropriated funds.” If Congress doesn’t appropriate funds for MEADS, the U.S. can withdraw from the program without penalty. That is what makes the House’s decision to fund MEADS to the tune of $380 even more curious.
MEADS can and should be axed because the U.S. and its allies already employ a missile defense program that does the job at a fraction of the cost to taxpayers. In an ironic twist, it is the Patriot Missile System, the very program MEADS was conceived to replace.
In my deployment to Iraq in 2004, I saw firsthand how effective our Patriot had been during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Patriot brought down nine Iraqi tactical ballistic missiles in nine attempts. The system singlehandedly denied the Iraqi military the use of ballistic missiles against our Army and Marine units and forced the Iraqis to change strategies, mid-battle.
Importantly, Patriot is still on the front lines today, thanks to ongoing modernization investments. Due to the demonstrated success of the Patriot in actual combat situations, Patriot now has 12 international partner nations that cost share development and production. Since the Patriot is actually deployed to worldwide locations, system support costs have been reduced and are shared among all 12 participating partners. Yet, while House appropriators earmarked money to terminate MEADS, they actually cut some funding for Patriot modernization.
In this time of fiscal austerity, Washington must get this simple but important message: Stick with what works, and cut what doesn’t. Hopefully the U.S. Senate gets that message when it works on its own spending bill this week. In the case of MEADS and Patriot, the correct course of action – for our warfighter and the taxpayer – is abundantly and patriotically clear.
Wassom is a retired U.S. Air Force colonel.