Next president should keep weapons systems that work well

By MARTIN SIEFF, UPI Senior News Analyst  |  Nov. 3, 2008 at 3:07 PM
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WASHINGTON, Nov. 3 (UPI) -- As the next U.S. president and Congress wield necessary axes on out-of-control defense spending, there are a number of surprisingly successful and promising programs they should spare.

First, there is that notorious ugly duckling turned beautiful swan, the much criticized V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft. Time magazine made it the cover story for everything that was wrong with the U.S. defense establishment a few months ago -- a classic reason to defend it, even if there were no other. But, in fact, Time was plain wrong. After a long and problem-plagued development, the Osprey has proved of great use in Iraq, especially to medevac out critically injured Marines.

Second, and on a much larger scale, the next administration and Congress should take care to keep open the production lines and component producing factories for the thankless old Abrams Main Battle Tank. Only the Russian T-90 MBT, which is produced in smaller numbers, can come close to rivaling it.

But following the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow offered by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's Future Combat Systems visions, the Pentagon is planning to replace the Abrams with a far lighter and less heavily armored tank that would be no match for the T-90. Given the universal reality that research and development programs on U.S. weapons systems always vastly exceed their costs and schedules, the Pentagon and the Army should stick with the Abrams.

There is broad consensus about the tested value of ballistic missile defense systems against intermediate-range ballistic missiles. But the next Congress should not totally pull the plug on now out-of-fashion development of next-generation anti-ballistic systems either.

The Kinetic Energy Interceptor shows great promise. Boeing's Airborne Laser has been making impressive progress in its prototype phase. The amount of seed money needed to maintain development and testing of both those programs is extremely low by Pentagon standards, and the potential payoff from them, even if years down the road, is enormously high. Plenty of sacred chickens in the U.S. armed forces inventory deserve to be axed. These programs do not.

The wonderful old Fairchild-Republic A-10 Thunderbolt/Warthog has been a tank-busting marvel in both Gulf wars. It is due to be replaced by the vastly more expensive tactical ground support variant of the F-35 Joint Strike Aircraft.

But far too few of the F-35s are going to be built anyway. And the F-35 is going to be a lemon in the tactical ground support/close air support role. As Winslow Wheeler and Elise Szabo of the Center for Defense Information have written for UPI, the F-35 is too large, too fast and too lightly armored to be effective as a close tactical support aircraft for ground forces. Nor does it carry any weapon comparable to the A-10's GAU-98 heavy cannon to pulverize ground targets.

It therefore would make far more sense to reopen A-10 production lines and take the close ground support role away from the F-35, allowing its CTOL (conventional takeoff and landing), STOVL (short takeoff and vertical landing) and Navy carrier variants to focus on their air superiority and regular fighter-bomber roles. It would be a bargain to keep the old A-10s flying as well as manufacturing more of them. Plane for plane, the A-10 is vastly cheaper than the F-35. Recent estimates put the cost of building 299 F-35s at an astronomical $300 billion, or more than $8.3 billion per plane.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates showed cost-effective and tactically wise judgment in effectively scrapping the ambitious DDG-1000 Zumwalt class destroyer program and sticking with the Navy's long-established, highly effective DDG-51 Arleigh Burke class destroyers.

There are no cheap or easy answers for all too many of the procurement decisions and strategic dilemmas that will face the next U.S. secretary of defense. But where the next SecDef inherits programs and weapons systems that aren't broken, there is no reason for him to try to fix them.


(Part 4: The next president of the United States and his first secretary of defense will have to cut hundreds of billions of dollars a year from the U.S. military budget. But ironically, they also will have to approve massive expenditures in crucial areas, too.)

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