Missile defense funding decision a step in right direction

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The Fiscal Year 2013 Department of Defense Appropriations Act that the committee crafted is not ideal for taxpayers. Although the legislation managed to hold expenditures slightly below the President’s request of $604.6 billion, and included $3.8 billion in rescissions of previous moneys, pricey projects with checkered histories of oversight remain in the bill. Increases in overall missile defense spending notwithstanding, Senators were right to direct resources toward the next generation of SM-3, known as Block IB, instead of the more futuristic IIB version (which received a cut of $169 million). After a challenging first test in the development phase, Block IB has met with several successes, including two difficult intercepts this year. House appropriators reported their defense bill to the floor without the full benefit of knowing those results.

Meanwhile, Block IIB remains an ambitious design that is confined more to the drawing board than the test range. At best, the system might be ready for initial deployment by 2021, compared to 2015 or sooner for Block IB. This six-year difference means a great deal to those in the field. As Rear Admiral Hicks, who formerly directed the Aegis ballistic missile defense program noted a few years ago, “we still have a tremendous demand signal for more missiles in the inventory.”

While my organization, National Taxpayers Union (NTU), does not claim technical expertise in missile performance, we do have experience with budget performance – and it tells us that Block IB has better potential.

We are not alone in this assessment. In April NTU and six other organizations penned an open letter to Congress supporting a focus on Block IB, noting that:

Over our organizations’ histories we have encountered projects throughout the armed services that promised massive technological advancements for warfighters, only to yield underwhelming results, behind-schedule evolution, and overinflated price tags. … Highly risky ventures like Block IIB often take similar trajectories – all offer huge potential on paper, many are kept alive long after that potential fades, and few have fiscal outcomes that are acceptable to overburdened taxpayers.

In regard to overall defense spending, some lawmakers have been vocal in their intent to stop planned slowdowns in the future (a.k.a. the sequester) triggered by last year’s debt ceiling agreement. But this desire must be weighed against the overwhelming need to rein in wanton deficit spending, which itself endangers the nation’s security. After all, as our Vice President of Government Affairs Andrew Moylan wrote in an NTU Issue Brief, “even with the sequester in place, we’ll still be spending at roughly 2006 levels with a steady upward trend through the end of the decade.”

Regardless of whether they support or oppose modifying the sequester, however, all Senators ought to agree upon setting budget priorities for systems that can maintain a predictable cost pattern between now and the end of the decade. On this score, SM-3 Block IB holds better promise than Block IIB.
When a household with finite resources faces an urgent need, the money must go where it will do the most good. No, the United States military cannot function exactly like an everyday household; it is a much more complex organization charged with protecting our nation’s people and their freedoms. Yet, neither can it exist in an economic vacuum. The federal government is now in its fourth straight year of trillion-dollar budget shortfalls, while the gross federal debt has exceeded 100 percent of our annual economic output. Correcting this unsustainable path requires foresight in budget policy more than ever before.

As far as SM-3 is concerned, the Senate Appropriations Committee has taken one step in the right direction. Now it’s up to other lawmakers to follow this lead.

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 and limited government at all levels.