Defense budget games are penny-wise but pound-foolish

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It is clear the Department of Defense will be shouldering significant budget cuts as the nation continues to try to balance its books. The temptation in shaping those cuts will be to eliminate new systems and simply buy more of what we already have. That could end up costing us more in the long run, both in dollar terms and in what we are forgoing in advanced battlefield capability.

Case in point: the Joint Air-to-Ground Missile (JAGM), a much-needed improvement on the decades-old Hellfire missile. Due to budgetary constraints, the Navy has signaled it may withdraw from the JAGM program, and the Army is considering following suit. As a “joint” program undertaken to fulfill the needs of all the service branches (and charged to the budget of each), one service pulling out means the entire program will be at risk of cancellation.

While each service may be able to save a little this year and next by pulling out of JAGM, eventually a much larger bill will come due. The trade-off is between somewhat lower per-unit costs today at the expense of lost synergies across the services and higher lifecycle costs for years to come — in other words, pulling out of JAGM would be penny-wise but pound-foolish.

As we shift to a more and more wired world, we need to continually update how we equip and train for tomorrow’s fights — which will involve fewer people, more technology and an emphasis on speed, precision and interoperability of forces, including both manned and unmanned platforms. More than anything else, we need flexible, modern, interoperable weapons that serve a variety of purposes.

If JAGM is cut, the warfighter will lose out on key game-changing capabilities and be stuck with an outdated system that provides much less in the way of all-weather and multi-platform, multi-mission capabilities.

In addition, a cost-benefit analysis of the mission effectiveness of JAGM versus Hellfire shows clear advantages for the new system. For example, a recently released Army-Navy Analysis of Alternatives (AoA) determined that an upgraded Hellfire would be 30% more expensive to employ in combat than JAGM, at the same time falling short of JAGM’s full range of capabilities.

What is more, the joint AoA did not take into account the lifecycle cost of maintaining the lengthy logistics trail associated with the 10 variants of Hellfire currently in use. When total lifecycle costs are factored in, a modified Hellfire would cost quite a bit more than JAGM, and yet wouldn’t be nearly as effective.

Some have pointed to the supposed risks associated with new technologies such as JAGM. But while cutting new platforms and increasing purchases of current systems reduces one kind of risk, it simultaneously increases another: the risk of technological obsolescence, which can open us up to massive battlefield surprise and cost lives.

Cutting JAGM will also limit the opportunity for innovations and breakthroughs in emerging technologies. In the end, we cannot ignore the essential truth that existing platforms are proven only against existing adversary capabilities. Just as our adversaries improve and adjust their weapons, we, too, must continue to improve ours.

Our military operates in a dynamic, not static, state of competition with current and potential foes. As in any dynamic environment it is continuous adaptation, not stasis, that allows for sustained advantages over time.

If we replace our cell phones and laptops every few years to harness the power of the latest features and breakthroughs, how could we expect to do any less for our highly sophisticated weapons systems?

In this time of budgetary constraint, the need for big-picture assessments of total costs and budgeting for long-term savings couldn’t be greater. Simplified designs, modular configurations and manageable, streamlined logistics are the real ways to save money.

Simplistic per-unit cost must not be the primary consideration when we are making decisions not only about what types of systems will be on the battlefield for the next several decades, but also ultimately who wins in tomorrow’s tactical engagements.

J. Michael Barrett is former director of strategy for the White House Homeland Security Council. He is a frequent national security commentator and a principal with the D.C.-based consulting firm Diligent Innovations.

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