Rube Goldberg, the cartoonist whose convoluted contraptions for accomplishing simple tasks delighted generations of comic-strip readers passed away in 1970; but his ghost still roams the halls of the Pentagon. His guiding hand can be seen clearly in a project initiated in the mid-1990’s, known by its acronym MEADS (short for Medium Extended Air Defense System). MEADS was to replace the PATRIOT anti-missile system which is in need of modernization.
If ever there was a textbook example of how the government should not develop a program, MEADS would be the poster child. Like the never-ending lawsuit described by Charles Dickens in “Bleak House,” Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, MEADS has continued inexplicably to drain US taxpayer resources for a decade and a half. However, thanks to recent adverse publicity and some unusually pointed questioning by freshman Sen. Scott Brown (R-MA), taxpayers may soon finally be rid of this white elephant.
MEADs has been plagued with problems from the start. First of all, the program was to be managed not by the US or any one country, but by a committee — NATO. As anyone familiar with government knows, if you want a program mismanaged, give it to a committee. The program was agreed to between the US, Germany and Italy; with Uncle Sam responsible for the lion’s share of all costs, in order to foster good will and cooperation.
While the MEADS agreement between Washington, Berlin, and Rome is structured as a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) and remains confidential, there has been sufficient detail about it disclosed publicly to show why it is an exercise in how not to draft a contract.
The MOU is so fuzzy, for example, that in congressional testimony March 29th, Frank Kendall, a senior Defense Department acquisitions expert, was forced to admit in response to questioning by Sen. Brown, that he did not know “who signed up to the deal.” Kendall also admitted the MOU made it deliberately difficult for the US to back out of the program if it didn’t work or became too expensive. Another Pentagon witness at the Senate hearing had to admit the MEADS agreement was indeed, “pretty unusual”; so unusual, he could not recall another like it.
If there is in fact not another international agreement like MEADS, that is good news for American taxpayers; because this one is proving outrageously costly and unproductive.
The figures truly are distressing. The program is a decade behind its original schedule. It already has cost US taxpayers over $1.5 billion, and has not even completed the initial, design and development (D&D) phase. Pentagon officials cannot with any degree of confidence predict that the system, even if developed and deployed, would ever meet its planned capabilities. Despite all this, our government dithers about whether it should – or even could — terminate the program and at least cut the loss to the American taxpayers.
For one thing, Defense Department officials seem to believe that under terms of the MOU, if the US were to withdraw from the program, this could subject us to as much as an additional $804 million in obligations to our two allies. This is highly questionable, but the department’s logic seems to be that we might as well continue the program through the D&D phase, since we might have to pay for it anyway.
Even standard termination penalties our government would likely have to pay Lockheed-Martin, the prime contractor, if the government were to pull the plug, would be substantially less than any monies demanded by Italy and Germany.
So, what’s the delay? Can the program now. Cut our losses. Let our “friends” sue us if they care to. And – most important – charge Sen. Brown with ensuring that never again should the US military enter into an agreement commiting our country to such a lousy, one-sided contract.
-by Bob Barr, The Barr Code