Panetta’s job: Find savings

Peter Roff Contributor
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Having been unanimously confirmed for the job of secretary of defense by the United States Senate, Leon Panetta has a big job on his hands.

Not that he’s not up to it. As a former chairman of the House Budget Committee, a former director of President Clinton’s Office of Management and Budget and a former White House chief of staff, Panetta knows the ins and outs of the federal government like few people do.

The biggest job on his plate is to wind down the U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan while managing the moving target that is our military commitment in Libya. These are strategic decisions, ones that should be driven by U.S. national security interests. As such they need to be separated from his other big job: finding ways to reduce spending inside the Defense Department.

He has a wide variety of opportunities available to him, principally in the area of unnecessary military hardware that continues to be foisted on the Pentagon by members of Congress and by the White House.

Take the Medium Extended Air Defense System — MEADS for short — which the Pentagon describes as “a NATO-managed, cooperative development program that was conceived in the mid-1990’s to develop a ground-based air and terminal ballistic missile defense capability that would replace existing Patriot systems in the United States and Germany and replace the Nike Hercules system in Italy.”

The Defense Department admits in its own fact sheet that “the MEADS program has experienced a number of technical and management challenges since its inception,” meaning “it has been unable to meet schedule and costs targets.”

Nevertheless, the program, which has already cost U.S. taxpayers in excess of $1.5 billion, continues to receive funding, backed by the White House despite what the watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste describes as being “plagued with total program cost overruns of $2 billion” while being “ten years behind schedule.”

If ever there was a program that could be cut, this is it. Yet, as Daniel Strauss wrote in The Hill on June 23, efforts to cut funding for the MEADS program has helped trigger a veto threat from the White House.

Part of the problem, as Strauss identified it, is a provision “to slash funding for the Medium Extended Air Defense System program,” cutting the administration’s $407 million by $150 million.

This despite the Pentagon’s announcement in February that the problems that have plagued the development of MEADS have led the Defense Department to decide it will neither buy nor field the system but will instead, as Strauss explained, “continue the development phase and provide funding up to a jointly agreed upon ceiling of $4 billion (in 2004 dollars).”

As Sen. John McCain said recently, the money being spent on MEADS could be put to better use.

“After Congress finally ended its dereliction of constitutional duty and provided full-year funding for the Defense Department in March — six months into the fiscal year — these same (Operation and Maintenance) accounts were further stretched by our operations in Libya,” McCain said in a June 24 release.

“We should give our military leadership the flexibility to fund the higher priorities of their selection that directly support the war fighter and also fund those items that were deferred during FY11 as a result of these unbudgeted and unexpected events,” he said of the National Defense Authorization Act. “This bill contains over $406 million that was added specifically by my amendments to address this purpose, taking that money from the Medium Extended Air Defense System program being developed with NATO allies that Defense and Army leaders have repeatedly testified is at high technical risk of failure and which will never be operationally fielded by the United States.”

McCain is right. In an age in which cost-cutting is a priority, spending up to $4 billion on a weapons system that the Pentagon will not buy and will not put in the field seems like madness. Cost control is the order of the day — which makes programs like MEADS something less than a luxury that the United States can no longer afford.

Peter Roff is a senior fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Liberty.