The National Taxpayer Union (NTU) and the Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) are two generally well-regarded advocacy organizations with respectable analytic capabilities. But the NTU’s and PIRG’s proposals to reduce defense spending neither further the national discussion on how much to reduce the defense budget nor do they add to either organization’s reputations. Rather, they reflect what can happen when good organizations exceed the bounds of their competencies or worse, rely on others for ideas.
Here is an example. The joint NTU/PIRG press release recommends cancelling the entire F-35 program and replacing it with “more advanced, cheap and reliable alternatives.” This is a nonsense statement. There are no such animals. Nothing more advanced than the F-35 exists today anywhere in the world except perhaps the F-22. There is no such thing as an advanced and cheap combat system. Even today’s U.S. fighters, the F-16 and F/A-18E/F, are not cheap. Nor are they necessarily even cheaper than the F-35, a much more capable aircraft, when the full costs of government-furnished equipment, spare parts, training and the like are included. As for reliability, it is simply wrong to compare the reliability of an aircraft still in development with ones that have been in production for decades and have had most of the bugs worked out.
I suppose that when it proposed advanced, cheap and reliable alternatives the NTU/PIRG had in mind unmanned aerial vehicles like the Predator. Had they bothered to do the appropriate due diligence on such an idea they would discover that unmanned systems are not that much cheaper than manned aircraft, the reason we use them so extensively today is because they provide long loiter times. Moreover, no one has yet built an unmanned aerial vehicle capable of operating in a high threat environment. We deploy armed Predators over Pakistan and Afghanistan because it is a permissive environment. Dogfighting with an unmanned vehicle is something only to be done in computer games. The last time someone tried using an unmanned aerial vehicle in a non-permissive air environment was during World War Two. British air defenses shot down around half of all the V-1s launched.
Then there is the recommendation to halt production of the V-22 Osprey because “it has suffered from innumerable schedule, management, cost, and production issues.” Apparently, neither group thought to check with anyone in the Navy, Marine Corps or Department of Defense. If they had, they would have discovered that the schedule, management, cost and production issues are things of the distant past. V-22s have been deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan with great success. They were even employed to rescue a downed U.S. pilot in Libya. The V-22 has logged over 100,000 flight hours. Production is roaring ahead with a second multiyear production contract in the works.
Finally, there is the mindless statement to reduce spending on “other procurements,” a budget category that includes things like night vision goggles and radios. I guess it would have been okay with NTU/PIRG if the SEALs that went in after Osama bin Laden had lacked critical equipment with which to successfully carry out the raid. Or it might just be that they don’t want money spent on medical equipment to save lives. The equipment bought under the heading of “other procurements” can mean the difference between winning and losing a fight on the ground and between living and dying.
Some of the NTU/PIRG recommendations such as to change the depots pricing structure and halt purchases of obsolete spare parts make sense. But most of the proposals for cutting procurement of weapons systems are simply wrongheaded. Perhaps if they had asked some mainstream experts about these ideas rather than relying on proposals from extremist groups representing the fringes of the defense debate they could have come up with a more sensible set of recommendations.
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