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Commentary: Stop Throwing Precious Budget Dollars Away on MEADS

Sep. 3, 2013 - 08:19PM   |  
By DEAN G. POPPS   |   Comments
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With a weak US economy, anxiety over a possible eurozone collapse, a rising red dragon and an angry red bear, Middle East turmoil of every variety and a massive national debt, America faces the stark reality of a “new normal,” regardless of who is in charge.

Nowhere are these challenging trends more acutely felt than at the US Department of Defense, which under the Budget Control Act of 2011 is facing nearly $500 billion in cuts over 10 years. In the meantime, DoD owes close to $500 billion of the total “sequestration” tab, approximately $50 billion a year.

During my tenure as the Army acquisition executive, I experienced the consequences of continuing expensive programs of record under changed wartime, political, financial and technology circumstances.

In 2009, when then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates terminated the Army’s flagship program, the networked-platform warfighting system called Future Combat Systems (FCS), he cited, among many reasons, the changed nature of warfighting in Iraq and Afghanistan from the days of the Cold War, the number of years until full system deployment, the Army’s expensive acquisition strategy and, ultimately, the program’s long-term affordability. The message was clear: The boss wanted no large, costly, long-development cycles, long-fielding cycles or constantly changing requirements to existing programs in this environment.

By and large, the DoD, under secretaries Leon Panetta and Chuck Hagel, has continued the same policy. Unfortunately, other programs that meet the same challenges as FCS continue to linger. The Medium Extended Air Defense System, or MEADS, is one of those systems that requires the same close scrutiny in today’s sequestered environment.

MEADS, an international, missile-to-missile intercept program with the US in the lead, began in 2005 after years of delay and with presumptions and requirements of a pre-Sept. 11 era. To date, with support from Germany and Italy, the program has disbursed about $4 billion, but after setbacks, including some $2 billion in cost overruns, the Army determined that the program had become too costly, delayed and perhaps redundant with existing systems for it to continue. In 2011 it decided to cut its losses and not budget for production, choosing to upgrade and maintain legacy systems.

For complex international reasons, some involving the NATO fight in Afghanistan and the need to bolster Europe’s economy, the program lives on in a perpetual state of design and development, with no real buyers in sight. To some it gives the appearance of a high-tech jobs program for foreign partner nations rather than a system that will be fielded in earnest.

DoD budget dollars continue to fund MEADS development, including a final $380 million payment expected this year. The money is intended to be used in November for testing, in my opinion largely to assuage our partner nations hoping to fill the void left by the United States. Germany’s involvement is on hold, leaving Italy alone to line up other European countries to help absorb the cost of MEADS future production, maintenance and modernization.

The handwriting is on the wall: Our own domestic fiscal constraints demand hard decisions, even if some allies are upset.

Hagel has testified to Congress that sequestration cuts from the Pentagon’s budget next year would affect training, infrastructure and living conditions around the world. Already, the Pentagon has furloughed 650,000 civilian workers, each of whom is taking an unpaid day off every two weeks until the end of September. These workers are essential to supporting our warfighters, at home and abroad, and these cuts are affecting the military’s readiness, operations and morale.

In the wake of these developments, how can we justify paying to test MEADS? The answer is that we can’t. We have other systems that can meet military requirements, and Congress needs to demand that the Defense Department cease all future spending on MEADS.

Funding more tests and “proofs of concept” is just kicking the can down the road, putting more dollars at risk for unclear international political purposes without a substantive and tangible return for our national security.

Dean G. Popps, a former US Army acquisition executive and former acting assistant secretary of the Army for acquisition, logistics and technology. He is a self-employed national security consultant; none of his clients is involved in missile defense.

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