In the current fiscal climate, Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates’ drive to make the Department of Defense more efficient and accountable is essential. The department must always be a good steward of taxpayers’ dollars. As of now, Defense has been forced to cut $78 billion from the budget over the next five years. Mr. Gates has further challenged the service chiefs to come up with $100 billion in savings with the understanding that they will then be able to reinvest in modernization of other “must fund” programs.
Which programs to cut or reduce must be balanced against evolving threats posed by China, Russia, Iran and North Korea as well as the unknown impact of the recent uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and other areas in the Middle East. The eventual outcome of those uprisings is less than clear but could have a profound impact on our strategic objectives in the Middle East and elsewhere.
Cutting the defense budget while we are still engaged in two wars is a difficult sell. A further consideration is the challenge posed by China’s aggressive military expansion program. Aside from the largest modern submarine force in the Western Pacific, the Chinese recently have displayed their fifth-generation stealth fighter, the J-20, which is designed to compete with our latest stealth fighter, the F-22. They also have developed an anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) that clearly is targeting our aircraft carriers. Unfortunately, we do not have a response to China’s ASBM, although it is difficult to hit a moving target.
To further complicate matters, Iran announced last week that it has in production a “smart” ASBM. The Iranians conducted an operational demonstration, hitting a target ship floating in the Persian Gulf. It has been reported to have an operational range of about 300 kilometers (186 miles) but because it’s a ballistic missile, the range must be much greater. China most likely sold the Iranians the missile components and a new “passive” radar for targeting. Further, both Iran’s and North Korea’s other ballistic- and cruise-missile programs are posing increasing threats to our friends and allies. With a rapidly changing strategic threat environment, investments in our research-and-development programs are essential if we are to maintain our technological lead, which is the critical force multiplier. The challenge for Defense is how and when to cut programs.
The secretary has taken the lead and made some significant program reductions and cancellations, including the elimination of the Joint Forces Command, which was long overdue. He has terminated the Marine Corps’ 30-millimeter cannon-armed Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV) because it is years behind schedule, has overrun on cost and clearly is not affordable, thereby saving another $12 billion. But the Marine Corps still needs a replacement for its current 1970s-vintage amphibious craft. China deploys hundreds of its smaller EFVs, and one version is armed with a 105-millimeter gun.
Certainly a poster child for a program needing termination is the Army’s Medium Extended Air Defense System (MEADS). It is a three-nation (U.S., Germany and Italy) trans-Atlantic air- and missile-defense program initiated in 1996 as a replacement for the Patriot. MEADS is more than 500 percent over the initial budget and more than nine years behind schedule. According to U.S. Army estimates, it will require more than 20 years of further development and $18 billion in additional funding. This clearly is unaffordable.
There is an alternative that would provide 90 percent of the intended MEADS capability at 10 percent of the cost. That system is the next-generation Patriot, Patriot NeXT. Patriot is currently in 12 nations, including five NATO nations. Applying the same criteria that the secretary did for terminating the EFV program, he should consider MEADS as a prime candidate for cancellation and proceed with the Patriot NeXT as a sensible alternative.
Another program that should be considered for cancellation is the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship (LCS). The Navy during the past lame-duck Congress was able to lock in a fixed-price contract of $440 million per ship with both Lockheed Martin and Austal USA, which would each build 10 ships of a total 55-ship program. The fixed price of $440 million is misleading because it does not include the costs of the modules that are necessary for the ship to carry out its intended missions.
The original concept called for the LCS to be stealthy. Neither company’s version is stealthy, and both have comparatively large radar cross sections, which make them vulnerable to homing missiles. Its updated Close-in-Weapon System can only counter one incoming missile at a time, and its 51-millimeter gun is no match for the anticipated threat. At speed, both versions are comparatively noisy and are easy targets for acoustic or wake-homing torpedoes. Further, both ship versions feature a lot of aluminum, risking ship disablement from a well-placed magnesium flare.
Mr. Gates should consider eliminating the LCS program as a failed experiment, and the Navy should join with the Coast Guard in a common hull. The money saved ($3-plus billion) should be reinvested in providing an anti-ship ballistic-missile defense for the Zumwalt-class destroyer at an estimated cost of $500 million per ship. The Zumwalt was built from the keel up to be stealthy, have sufficient power and cooling, and have space to accommodate the latest dual-band radars and current and future weapon systems. An anti-ballistic-missile-equipped Zumwalt would be capable of pre-empting the Chinese and Iranian ASBM threat, thereby ensuring our capability to operate in any contested area and carry out our strategic objectives.
Retired Navy Adm. James A. Lyons was commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet and senior U.S. military representative to the United Nations.