Senate appropriators on-target with cost savings in missile program

Pete Sepp President, National Taxpayers Union
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To the average taxpayer, allowing federal dollars spent on military programs to go to waste is no more excusable than squandering resources on domestic initiatives. That’s why it’s important to draw attention to a bipartisan defense appropriations breakthrough that could benefit both service people and taxpayers.

Recently the National Taxpayers Union (NTU) praised members of the Senate Appropriations Committee for recommending a funding reallocation toward the SM-3 Block I-B and II-A defensive missile platforms instead of the more tenuous II-B program. In the waning days of the session, lawmakers should strongly support this militarily and fiscally sensible solution.

The SM-3, part of the Aegis air defense system, has recently entered an evolutionary phase that concentrates on defeating incoming ballistic missile threats. The Block 1-B, II-A and II-B are different variations — the II-B being the most prone to spiraling in cost as well as design challenges. The more ambitious II-B definitely has its support among those looking for a major advance in capability. Yet, the other path envisioned by the Senate Appropriations Committee is attractive for many reasons. The Block 1-B will enter production in 2013 and Block II-A by 2018 — well ahead of 2020, the earliest year the II-B could start deployment. Additionally, the II-A enjoys a development partnership with Japan that includes funding.

Beyond these initial advantages, NTU’s 40 years of experience examining defense projects tells us that Senate appropriators are making a prudent move. Positive news like this may not be a headline-grabber, but good spending decisions deserve public applause, precisely to reinforce sound budgeting and avoid boondoggles.

It may seem obvious that a larger leap forward technologically carries much greater risk of being over-budget, behind-schedule and missing performance goals. Yet, policymakers often have trouble learning this lesson, and taxpayers wind up footing the bill.

A key example is the case of the Airborne Laser (ABL). According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the ABL has been plagued with “long-standing technical problems, cost growth, and schedule delays.” In a 2010 assessment, GAO stated “the program currently estimates that the cost of the ABL through the first lethality demonstration is nearly $5.1 billion, almost five times the approximate $1 billion estimated for the original contract in 1996.” The Comanche helicopter is another example of a costly overreach. The rotorcraft was ultimately terminated in 2004 after unit costs quadrupled through the two-decade life of the project. Furthermore, the $11 billion Crusader artillery system threatened to drain taxpayers’ wallets before its expensive eight-year life ended in 2002.

The latter two projects and their problematic aspects for taxpayers must not be forgotten, particularly when spending valuable public dollars in the current economy. Senate appropriators may have noticed similar warning signs when guiding funding away from Block II-B. The increasingly impressive military capability offered by other blocks also seems to have informed their deliberations. They are in good company, considering leaders such as Retired Admiral Williams and Rear Admiral Hicks believe that Blocks I-B and II-A have exceeded expectations in intercepting missiles.

Critics of the Senate Appropriations Committee’s plan claim the more expensive II-B option is worth the risk in pursuit of a potential breakthrough. While this is an understandable motivation, the unknown commitment of future taxpayer dollars to possibly make it happen — combined with the high potential for delays when a proven system is needed in the field — make Block II-B’s uncertainties high.

Given the present fiscal climate, it is more imperative than ever before to heed the advice from former Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral Mullen and “steward every dollar that we have.” Senate Appropriations Committee members reflected that stewardship by concentrating federal funding in the Defense Appropriations Bill on SM-3 Blocks I-B and II-A.

Lawmakers in both chambers have already missed a key opportunity to follow the wiser course for SM-3; the final compromise version of the Defense Authorization Bill plows ahead with Block II-B. Here’s hoping that Congress will get back on track with the Defense Appropriations Bill, by embracing the Senate Appropriation Committee’s strategy. Our military needs a proven solution that’s on-time, and taxpayers need a reliable project that’s on-budget.

Pete Sepp is executive vice president for the 362,000-member National Taxpayers Union, a nonpartisan citizen group founded in 1969 to work for lower taxes, less waste in government, and accountability from public officials at all levels.