Anyone who has served in the military knows there is plenty of fat to be cut in the Pentagon budget. But rather than take a “meat ax” to the budget — as Defense Secretary Panetta famously described sequestration — there are more targeted ways to reduce and reform defense spending.
Whether it’s procedural inefficiencies, duplicative programs, cost overruns, or endemic waste, there are billions upon billions of Pentagon dollars that could be eliminated without undermining the Defense Department’s ability to execute its Constitutional mandate-to “provide for the common defense.”
Of course, as with anything in life, the devil is in the details. It’s easy to talk about trimming the fat in the defense budget, but much more difficult to put specific programs on the chopping block. It’s no secret that, in the halls of Congress, debates about strategic needs often descend into political turf battles, with legislators fighting for earmarks din their ‘back yard.’ This fact explains why the Pentagon routinely gets items it doesn’t want and money for systems it will never field. Enter, MEADS.
The Medium Extended Air Defense System (MEADS) is a timely and poignant example of this type of spending. MEADS is a joint venture with Germany and Italy that was supposed to represent the next generation of air defense systems, but has never performed as advertised. Plagued by cost overruns ($2 billion over budget), performance failures, and massive delays(it’s 10 years behind schedule), the Army now says it doesn’t even want the system and the Pentagon admits MEADS will never be fielded.
As a result, MEADS is on almost everyone’s list of sensible and strategically sound defense cuts. A good chunk of Congress agrees and-until two days ago-all the relevant House and Senate committees had denied funding the program into 2013. That was, until the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on defense approved a $380 million earmark for the program on Tuesday. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes (more like a mummy emerging from the grave) MEADS is somehow, once again, alive.
Supporters of the program — Republicans and Democrats alike — incorrectly claim withholding the funding would expose the U.S. to costly and unproductive litigation, damage relations with two NATO allies, and leave technology gains on the table. These claims range from the patently false to the overblown, and demonstrate a classic Washington attempt to keep a clinically dead defense program on life support.
For years the Defense Department maintained the stance that terminating the MEADS contract early with Italy and Germany would expose the U.S. to costly termination fees, as well as possible litigation. This has since been proved false. A close reading of the 2005 MEADS Memorandum of Understanding between the U.S., Italy, and Germany-which was exposed by Citizens Against Government Waste-shows that all termination costs are subject to authorization and appropriations by the respective legislative bodies. In short, if Congress doesn’t fund it, the U.S. can leave the program without penalty.
As for litigation and international relations, another Citizens Against Government Waste report demonstrates that Germany has already agreed to terminate MEADS, and Italy could follow suit soon. Both countries have already said they don’t intend to ever use the MEADS system, and yet maintain close cooperation with the U.S. on other projects. The common sense test-applied by infantrymen everywhere-affirms that the end of this project would not undermine our alliance with either country.
As for technology, in a March 2011 report the Congressional Budget Office recommended terminating MEADS in order to “continue production of Patriot interceptors and initiate an engineering effort to maintain and improve the Patriot system.” That same report cites an internal Army memo that urges, “harvesting MEADS technologies and improving the Patriot program it was designed to replace.” The total cost savings? $13 billion over ten years. That’s real savings, while preserving critical capabilities.
MEADS, and other programs like it, represents appropriations “fat” that must be cut. For budget hawks, these sacred cows saddled with costs overruns and time delays embody exactly the type of wasteful spending that stands in the way of true reform. As a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, I can attest to the fact that the enemy rockets that our Patriot systems intercept are dangerous; but our own home-grown Achilles heel-debt and deficit spending-is the threat that keeps me up at night.
As someone who believes-deeply-in preserving American power and defense capabilities, my message to the Senate is: cut the BS, and get serious. We can’t afford to throw around billions of dollars in earmarks anymore, and you know it. Don’t fund MEADS and other programs like it, and get to work on serious spending reforms that actually address our national debt.
Pete Hegseth, an Army National Guard infantry officer who has served in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo Bay, is a member of Concerned Veterans for America.