Imagine you're a legislator in a country with a bloated budget of almost $4 trillion and a record level of spending that requires massive deficits and could mean job-killing tax increases. Now imagine you've got a weapons program that is billions over budget, a decade behind schedule and unwanted even by those for whom it is intended. What would you do? If you said, "Earmark the program another $380 million," you're apparently qualified to serve on the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee.
The weapons program is the Medium Extended Air Defense System, a joint venture with Germany and Italy that was zeroed out by three of four relevant congressional funding authorities. But the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense decided the program was worth a $380 million earmark, and the full committee passed the final bill along with a unanimous vote.
MEADS was intended to replace the Patriot missile, but has never lived up to its billing. Originally scheduled for deployment in 2008, MEADS is now projected to be ready no earlier than 2018. The program has already overrun costs by $2 billion, and there's no reason to believe that pattern won't continue. More importantly, there are serious questions regarding the program's efficacy, which is why the Army itself has called for it to be shelved.
According to the Washington Post, an internal Army memo acknowledged that the program would not "meet U.S. requirements or address the current and emerging threat without extensive and costly modifications." In addition, the Congressional Budget Office has recommended canceling the program, while the Government Accountability Office has reported that MEADS is "at risk of not meeting several technical performance measures," which is rather important when lives are on the line.
Program supporters have pointed to the joint nature of the program as a reason to continue anyway. Rather than simply end the program, the Department of Defense decided that although domestic procurement is not going to happen, a two-year "proof of concept" should still be funded. Why? Well, so that Germany and Italy can salvage enough development to potentially deploy the system, even though they have indicated reluctance to ever procure it themselves. And why would they? It's expensive and it hardly works.
The failure of the MEADS program shouldn't come as a surprise. Not every system in development is going to pan out, even before the general bureaucratic obstacles of incompetence and corruption are thrown into the equation. Getting a successful program at a reasonable cost while working through just one nation's bureaucracy is a challenge, but doing so with three national bureaucracies in the mix would be a miracle. It's time for Congress to cut our losses and move on.
We can't afford to spend another half-billion dollars to prove the "concept" of a program that underperforms and is chronically over budget. That may be business as usual in Washington, but it's time to finally consider what's in the best interest of taxpayers.
Andrew F. Quinlan is co-founder and president of the Center for Freedom and Prosperity (freedomandprosperity.org).