When the Obama Administration took office, it recast U.S. defense priorities to stress winning current wars, partnering with overseas allies and doing business more efficiently. Those sound like complementary goals, but the way things are working out in current Pentagon budget drills, they could prove to be contradictory. Under pressure from senior policymakers to become more efficient in its use of money, the Army is cutting key partnering programs with allies because the programs aren’t crucial to winning current wars.
That perverse dynamic is playing out right now as the Army rewrites its air defense plans. Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Chiarelli has decided to kill two programs that were supposed to provide the core of ground-force defenses against future attack by manned aircraft, cruise missiles, and short-range ballistic missiles. First, he elected to terminate a Raytheon program called SLAMRAAM designed to field an air defense solution more capable than the short-range Stinger and more affordable than the long-range Patriot. Then he decided to forego funding of Lockheed Martin’s Medium Extended Air Defense System (MEADS) conceived to replace Patriot. In effect, the Vice Chief is proposing to gut the Army’s air defense modernization program.
The service views these moves as “portfolio shaping” intended to allocate limited investment dollars in the most efficient manner. But the real reason air defense is being targeted can be explained more bluntly: neither Al Qaeda nor the Taliban has an air force. Since that’s who the Army is fighting today, it figures spending on new air defense capabilities can wait. The problem with such reasoning is that if the Army waits until an enemy with an air force materializes to start modernizing its defenses, then soldiers may die for lack of adequate protection. That danger exists not only for U.S. troops, but also for the troops of allies who were planning to deploy the new systems with their own forces.
According to Raytheon, nearly 20 countries such as Australia, Canada and Spain are prospective customers for SLAMRAAM through the middle of the coming decade. And MEADS from its inception has been a cooperative tri-nation program in which the United States paid 58% of development costs, Germany paid 25% and Italy paid 17%. Thus, in order to cope with near-term budget pressures, the Army is contemplating termination of one program with big export potential and another in which NATO allies are bearing nearly half of the cost burden. Killing such programs probably isn’t what the White House had in mind when it decided to make partnering a centerpiece of its security strategy.
Pentagon insiders will tell you that the Army is just playing budget games in the hope that policymakers will cough up more money for its weapons budget. After all, MEADS was conceived in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, not in the Army (which dislikes having to share programs with allies). But in the current budget environment, counting on Secretary Gates to come to the rescue of programs that aren’t supported by their home services seems like a weak reed to rely on. So the Pentagon’s fiscal 2012 budget request will be a test of whether the administration was really serious about partnering, or it intends to abandon allies the moment it needs bill-payers for other priorities. The sad thing is that if policymakers decide to throw the allies overboard, U.S. troops will be endangered by their actions too.