It’s hard to fault the president’s bi-partisan deficit commission for recommending the termination of over-priced Army combat vehicles. The plan to buy next-generation troop carriers that cost $10 million each and gee-whiz jeeps priced at over half a million dollars per vehicle sounds way too costly to execute. As for the even pricier Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV) that the Marines are counting on to get them from ship to shore, defense secretary Robert Gates has already beaten the commission to the punch by killing that system in the final stages of the fiscal 2012 budget build.
However, the Marine vehicle is a good example of what’s wrong with the commission’s list of “illustrative” weapons cuts, because killing a program isn’t the same thing as killing a requirement. The Marines will still need to get from ship to shore, and it’s getting awfully hard to do that in the slow, antiquated amphibious vehicles the service operates today. That means that if EFV goes away, the Corps will have to spend a lot of money on other approaches to meeting the military requirement — first by upgrading legacy vehicles, then by developing new ones. So killing the EFV won’t save the government much money, and quite likely will cost the Marine Corps many lives.
When you look at the other weapons identified as bill-payers, it becomes clear that commission members just don’t know what they’re talking about. Take the Joint Tactical Radio System, a program conceived to replace dozens of incompatible communications systems in the field today with a single, secure network. The commission doesn’t seem to understand that if the joint radio disappears, then the Pentagon will need to keep all those legacy radios running until some alternative is developed. That will cost literally tens of billions of dollars for spare parts, short-term fixes and a new development effort, while leaving many warfighters lost in the fog of war.
The commission’s proposal to prematurely terminate production of the V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft illustrates another defect in its approach. After 25 years of research and development, the Marine Corps has fielded a genuinely revolutionary airframe that combines the vertical agility of a helicopter with the speed and reach of a fixed-wing plane. So now, with over $50 billion spent in a $60 billion acquisition plan, the deficit commission wants to kill the program just as it has begun to demonstrate its true worth in places like Afghanistan. Apparently the commission has no qualms about squandering money as long as the money was spent by past administrations. The conventional helicopters it would buy in place of the remaining Ospreys cannot begin to match the V-22’s versatility in combat.
Finally, there is the commission’s proposal to kill the Marine variant of the F-35 joint strike fighter and slash the buy of F-35s for the Air Force and Navy. The deficit commission would buy more legacy F-16 and F/A-18 fighters instead. Somebody should tell the commission that the latest version of the F-16 sells for about as much as an Air Force F-35 will, without offering anywhere near as much situational awareness or survivability. The Navy and Marine Corps versions will cost more, mainly because they are designed to accomplish specialized missions. But it won’t do the Marines much good to buy a last-generation fighter that can’t land anywhere near where the troops are, or for the Navy to buy a strike aircraft that can’t survive near Chinese airspace. The commission’s recommendations for F-35 look frugal because it’s cheaper to buy a force that won’t win in wartime.
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