JAGM represents an important upgrade in U.S. military capabilities. It would
give war-fighters a missile that can hit moving targets in adverse weather
and through the smoke, dust, and debris of the modern battlefield. And JAGM
doubles the range of the weapons it will replace, keeping aviators and
unmanned platforms safely outside the reach of many enemy air defenses.

But further development needed to field this missile came with a
half-billion-dollar price tag. Tough fiscal times call for tough cuts.
However, even if the course correction is justified, the cause for concern
now is what Defense officials have proposed as a replacement for the

According to recent statements, officials are considering taking a slice of
the saved money and putting it toward "lower cost alternatives such as
Hellfire," a stalwart missile used in American airborne military engagements
since 1985. On its face, this is sound logic, avoiding the substantial costs
of creating a brand-new weapons system by simply enhancing an existing one.

Problem is, today's military needs reliable, effective weapons that can hit
specific targets in a wide variety of conditions. Even with major upgrades,
ordnance like the Hellfire won't offer what is needed for the future of
modern combat.

Think of it this way. When the Hellfire was first considered cutting-edge,
Pac Man was the hottest video game in the country. No matter how much you
want to turn Pac Man into Call of Duty, it just can't happen. This missile
was never designed to be used in today's complex battlefield.

Indeed, the technological progress in weaponry over the last few decades has
been astonishing, but that rapid progress means the inherent limitations of
old weapons systems like the Hellfire can't simply be fixed with "upgrades."
By the time you upgrade Hellfire's numerous limitations, including its short
range and inability to hit moving targets in adverse weather, you'll
basically have developed an entirely new missile, one that may wind up
costing even more than simply finishing JAGM development. Sometimes starting over is cheaper than endless upgrades.

But even if you decide to alter course, the process for awarding the
contract to replace JAGM should be a truly fair and open competitive bidding
process, with the firm offering the most value for the lowest prices winning
the right to develop the next-generation solution. Pre-selecting the
Hellfire pretty much destroys the rigor of free and fair competition because
one firm, in this case Lockheed Martin, has been in the Hellfire missile
production business for three decades. That gives it a huge advantage over
other bidders. It's virtually guaranteed to win such a contract.

That means there won't be much in the way of genuine market forces to ensure
the government gets a big bang -- literally -- for its buck. One of
Lockheed's top competitors, Raytheon, went three-for-three in its recent
JAGM prototype demonstrations. Raytheon is also moving successfully forward
with Small Diameter Bomb II, a gravity-powered glide bomb for fighter jets
and drones that, like JAGM, will hit moving targets in adverse weather and
through battlefield obscurants.

Boeing has also been successful with its weapons systems in the last few
years. Its Joint Direct Attack Munition system -- which turns free-fall
bombs into precision-guided munitions -- has been used effectively in combat
since 1999.

There may be other companies worth looking at too, like the European missile
maker MBDA, which recently acquired Northrop Grumman's Viper Strike
munitions business in Huntsville, Alabama.

Especially during a time of extremely tight budgets, the Defense Department
shouldn't risk value and performance by pre-selecting the winner without
seeing what all the options are.

Officials need to expand what they will consider for alternative weapons
technology, harness the power of the free market and choose the best value.
Take bids from more than one contractor. Make the bidding process truly
competitive. Let private firms fight it out. Determine which proposal best
meets the need in the most affordable way. And then - and only then - select
a winner and award the contract.

These are tough fiscal times. The military -- like the rest of government --
must be vigilant about using taxpayer resources wisely. Redirecting funds to
upgrades sometimes works and sometimes doesn't. When it comes to advanced
missiles for modern warfare, our war-fighters deserve the best we can
reasonably afford, which means the product of a free and open competition.

Barrett is former director of strategy for the White House
Homeland Security Council. He is a frequent national security commentator and a
principal with the D.C.-based consulting firm Diligent Innovations.