By Loren B. Thompson, Ph.D.
Here's a fantasy. Imagine three military services agreed on the need for a versatile air-to-ground missile that could precisely destroy a wide range of elusive targets -- everything from camouflaged armored vehicles to terrorist speedboats. Imagine they found a low-cost design that could do those things day or night, good weather or bad, even when enemies were trying to jam the missile. Imagine the services selected a company that developed the missile on time and on cost, meeting all of its performance objectives. And imagine the missile was fielded expeditiously, replacing four cold-war missiles with an easy-to-maintain round that saved military lives while minimizing unintended damage.
You'd have to be pretty naive to believe the Pentagon's dysfunctional acquisition system could deliver all that, wouldn't you? That's right, you would -- because the military actually has a program matching that description, and senior officials have been trying to kill it for two years. Why? Well, nobody really knows why.
The program is called the Joint Common Missile, and review panels have repeatedly stated that it is the only system available that can eliminate deficiencies in existing munitions -- deficiencies such as accidentally killing non-combatants.
But on Christmas Eve in 2004, a secret meeting of Donald Rumsfeld's handpicked geniuses decided to terminate the whole effort without even asking military users whether that was a good idea. Political appointees have continued to oppose the missile ever since, even though the services keep coming back with new evidence that the military requirement is valid, the technology works, and the program is on track.
Which raises the question of why officials don’t want to fund the program. The problem can't be affordability, because the four legacy munitions that the Joint Common Missile would replace cost more money to buy and maintain in separate lots than a single system would. It can't be lack of "jointness," because the Army and Marine Corps want to put the missile on helicopters, the Navy wants to put it on fighters, and there are even plans to deploy it on ground vehicles. It can't be operational difficulties, because all of the key components have been thoroughly tested. And it can't be politics, because the program has strong backing in Congress (where it continues to be funded). So what's the problem?
Here's one possibility. Joint Common Missile was canceled in a rush as part of a package of last-minute program changes designed to fit the fiscal 2006 defense budget within White House guidelines.
The decisions were made so carelessly that policymakers have had to reverse each of the changes one by one in the two years since the cuts were made. The only decision that hasn't been reversed was the move to cancel the Joint Common Missile. And even that program isn't really canceled, because in the haphazard management culture of Donald Rumsfeld's Pentagon, nobody ever got around to doing the paperwork to formally terminate the program.
Nonetheless, agreeing to fund the program would be a tacit admission that the December 2004 cuts were the most amateurish review of weapons programs conducted in modern times, and some of the people involved in that fiasco still hold senior Pentagon positions.
So instead of simply admitting a mistake, political appointees want to recompete the program -- despite the fact that there are no apparent problems with the weapon, despite the fact that a new competition would cost several hundred million dollars, and despite the fact that starting over would delay fielding the missile for years. Meanwhile, the nation’ s military would continue to carry deficient, potentially dangerous munitions into combat.
Isn’t it time policymakers started listening to the advice of war-fighters?