The Easy Button
When it comes to next year's defense budget, members of the House of Representatives seem to be inspired by those Staples TV commercials and their ubiquitous "Easy" button. In recent mark-ups of the 2008 Defense Authorization Act, three House sub-committees that oversee weapon purchases shifted billions of dollars from future weapons to more tested technology.
Defense News (subscription required) summarizes the winners--and losers--from that process, in an article that was reprinted at the Air Force's "Aimpoints" news site. At first blush, some of the cuts seem to make sense; for example, two sub-committees trimmed $867 from the Army's troubled Future Combat System (FCS) program, in favor of buying more Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) troop carriers. The MRAP vehicles are far more resistant to IEDs than up-armored HUMVEEs, and the house panel wants to buy 7700 of the troop carriers, with some of the funding coming from cuts in FCS. The latter program is a network of 14 vehicles, airborne and ground based, manned and unmanned, connected by a sophisticated command and control system. But FCS is behind schedule and over-budget, making it an easy target for Congressional cuts.
Likewise, the House's Air-Land sub-committee is adding another $2.4 billion to the Air Force budget, allowing the service to buy 10 more C-17 cargo planes. Expansion of the C-17 fleet will improve the Air Force's strategic airlift capabilities and eventually retire some of its older C-5 Galaxy transports. To pay for the additional C-17s, the sub-committee is trimming $200 million from the next-generation tanker (KC-X) program, and $153 million from efforts to field a new combat search-and-rescue (CSAR-X) helicopter.
But the biggest loser of all was the Missile Defense Agency (MDA), which would lose $400 million (out of a requested $ 517 million) from its airborne laser program, and $160 million (from a $310 million request) for missile defenses in Europe. The House panels did make incremental increases in other missile defense programs, adding $66 million to the Navy's ship-based Aegis system, and $13 to the Army's Patriot PAC-3.
But a closer read of the mark-ups also reveals the role of politics in the process. Long opposed to missile defense (in general), Democrats who now run the defense sub-committees used the mark-ups to gut a pair of key projects, the airborne laser (ABL), and proposed missile defense sites in Europe. Their actions prove--once again--how incredibly short-sighted the Democrats have become on matters of national security.
Consider the ABL. A senior Air Force general recently described the airborne laser as "one of only two revolutionary programs in the entire Pentagon budget." Admittedly, the Air Force (which will operate the system) has a dog in the fight, but the general's description is accurate. ABL has the potential to destroy enemy missiles at one of their most vulnerable junctures--the boost phase--which occurs shortly after takeoff. Development of the ABL will provide a powerful, stand-off weapon for dealing with regional ballistic missile threats, and enhance the effectiveness of other defensive systems, which engage missiles during their mid-course or terminal phase.
In the same vein, the European sites also take missile defense to another level, providing protection to key allies, and creating a deterrent effect against rogue states like Iran and Syria. Tehran already has medium-range missiles and Damascus can easily acquire that technology; more ominously, Iran is working on intermediate range systems that can target much of Europe and may share that technology with its allies in Syria. By placing defensive radars in Poland and the Czech Republic, the U.S. and its partners are sending a clear message to the tyrants and Tehran and Damascus, a message that has grown more muddled with the House action.
Are the ABL and ground-based missile defenses proven technology? Not yet. Are they expensive? Yes. Controversial? You bet. But sometimes it's necessary for defense planners (and Congress) to look beyond easy choices, and make selections that are revolutionary, despite the cost and occasional controversy. We can only be thankful that previous Congressional committees saw fit to fund programs like the F-117 Stealth Fighter, the B-2 Stealth Bomber, the M-1 tank, and even the Aegis and Patriot. Most were criticized (at some point) as being unreliable or too expensive.
William Hawkins describes this mind-set well in an op-ed from today's Washington Times; he notes that many Democratic staffers attend monthly workshops hosted by the non-profit Project on Government Oversight (POGO). The organization got its start in the early 1980s by targeting a then-controversial Army program, the M-1 Abrams main battle tank. According to the group (then known as the Project on Military Procurement), the Abrams was a dog; its tracks wore out too soon; the high-tech turbine engine burned too much fuel, its hydraulic fluid was too flammable. Of course, the M-1 quickly proved its critics wrong, demonstrating its dominance in the 1991 Gulf War against an Iraqi Army equipped with "state-of-the-art" Russian tanks.
Mr. Hawkins reminds us that many of the organizations that opposed the Reagan defense build-up of 20 years ago are still around, and still committed to cutting defense programs--particularly those ensure U.S. military (and technological) superiority. Not surprisingly, they have the F-22 fighter squarely in their sights, along with that "other" revolutionary program, the ABL.
No one disputes the need for IED-resistant vehicles in Iraq, and more money to repair worn out or damaged equipment. But the nature of military technology also requires that we also make the tough choices, taking a chance on weapons and systems that will create the next revolution on the battlefield, and enhance our national security in the process. Favoring the "easy button" in the procurement process may score political points over the short term, but it's also a proven plan for losing our technological and military advantage.