Unwanted Pentagon weapons systems often prove impossible to kill

Defense Secretary Robert Gates, his finger to the political winds, is trying to stave off deep cuts to the Pentagon's budget by preemptively axing tens of billions of dollars of expensive -- and potentially unnecessary -- weapons systems.

But the Defense chief is quickly discovering how hard it is to get members of Congress to sign off on actually cutting funding for the programs, particularly if the weapons are built in a lawmaker's home district or state. The overall Pentagon budget is no longer untouchable, which is itself an enormous change from past years. Many specific military procurement programs, by contrast, will almost certainly survive Gates' concerted push to kill them off.

The next-generation Medium Extended Air Defense System, for example, is continuing to receive hundreds of millions of dollars in government funding despite an internal Army report that blisteringly concluded that MEADS was ill-suited to defending troops from the kinds of attacks they were likely to face now or in the near future.

The system would not "address current and emerging threats, a critical shortfall," the Army wrote in the February 2010 report, which was obtained last year by Defense Daily. "Current Army position is: Terminate MEADS."

But MEADS, which is designed to shoot down short-range missiles, has not been terminated. On the contrary, workers are continuing to test rough prototypes of the system, which is supposed to replace the Patriot missile-defense systems that earned widespread public acclaim during the first Persian Gulf War.

"The program is absolutely under active development," said Marty Coyne, the director of business development for MEADS International. "We've been focused on the contract. [The Army review] had no impact."

Lt. Col. Alayne Conway, an Army spokeswoman, said, "No [Defense Department] decision has been made on the future status of the program."

The MEADS saga highlights the challenges facing Gates as he prepares to make the kinds of tough budgetary choices that the Pentagon has long been able to avoid. The defense budget has doubled in real terms since 2001, but Gates has been warning audiences for months that those boom times are ending. Earlier this month, the Defense secretary said he would save $78 billion over the next five years by capping -- and then eliminating -- the rate of growth in the military budget.

Beyond those cuts, Gates wants to free up more than $154 billion in funding for reinvestment elsewhere within the Pentagon by modestly shrinking the size of the Army and Marine Corps and by axing expensive -- and unproven -- weapons systems such as the Marines' Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle. An array of outside analysts believes that the Defense secretary will eventually have no choice but to also cancel or significantly cut back pricey weapons such as the V-22 Osprey (a tilt-wing aircraft that can take off like a helicopter and fly like a plane) and the Navy's next-generation Zumwalt-class destroyer.

Gates' Pentagon press conference announcing those cuts was front-page news across the country and received extensive cable-news coverage. Far less attention has been paid to the powerful lawmakers from both parties who are already mobilizing to save the programs.

The Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle is built in Ohio, and a trio of lawmakers from the state -- Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown, Democratic Rep. Marcy Kaptur, and Republican Rep. Jim Jordan -- wrote a letter to President Obama earlier this month asking him to rebuff Gates and preserve the vehicle.

"Without the EFV, these facilities will be severely downgraded, hurting the local economies and eliminating hundreds of high-paying, high-skilled manufacturing jobs," the three lawmakers wrote. "Protecting these jobs protects the troops we send into harm's way and ensures our nation will be ready to meet a wide range of future threats."

Other lawmakers -- including such prominent Democratic senators as John Kerry of Massachusetts and Patrick Leahy of Vermont -- are working to hand the Defense chief a second defeat by preserving funding for an alternate engine for the F-35 jet fighter, a program Gates has frequently derided as costly and unnecessary.

The plane is intended to maintain U.S. air superiority well into the future, even when put up against next-generation Russian and Chinese planes. The plane's primary developers, Lockheed Martin and Boeing, want to use an engine made by Pratt & Whitney. General Electric, which makes a competing version of the engine, has spent years lobbying lawmakers to appropriate money for developing its engine as well. Gates and senior Air Force officers don't want the GE model, but Congress seems likely to soon appropriate hundreds of millions of dollars in new funding for the alternate engine program.

MEADS, meanwhile, lives on. The missile-defense system is being developed with Germany and Italy, with the Pentagon providing 58 percent of the $3.4 billion budgeted for the system through fiscal 2014. Just under $2 billion has been spent to date on the program, which employs 1,000 people in the United States and a total of 1,000 more in Italy and Germany.

Executives at MEADS International say they are optimistic about the program's future. Next year, they're scheduled to conduct a full test of the system at New Mexico's White Sands Missile Range to see if it can shoot down an incoming missile. Coyne said that the test would be the most significant milestone to date in the program's history.

"We know there are some harsh budget pressures, but we're really excited about the progress on this system," he said.

If all goes according to plan, MEADS -- unwanted by the Army but seemingly impossible to kill -- should enter the nation's arsenal sometime after 2014.

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