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Military Challenges Obama On Weapons Systems

So later today I’ll have a piece up about Obama’s relationship with the military and the challenges and opportunities it presents. But, like R. Kelly, I want to break you off with a little taste of the remix.

One of my sources for the piece is a Pentagon official who requested anonymity. He made a really interesting point that, alas, had to fall out of the piece. Despite the unsustainable half-trillion-dollar military budgets during this period of dire financial hardship, the services will cling to their favorite big-ticket programs with an icy death-grip. If Obama’s really going to make painful cuts to unnecessary defense programs, he’s got to go all-out, making it clear that he’s in charge and the cuts are happening no matter what. If he doesn’t do that, he’s going to get rolled throughout his presidency. The official:

“The parlous budget and procurement situation will require curtailing or cancelling some of the services’ most prized and costly — and least relevant — weapons systems, such as FCS [the Army's technology-intensive Future Combat Systems project], the F-22 [the Air Force's new fighter aircraft], and the [Navy's] Zumwalt destroyer. The new leadership must make clear that shirking and lobbying and leaking to keep these projects going — as the Army tried to do with Crusader in 2002– will not be tolerated.”

Crusader was an artillery system cancelled by Donald Rumsfeld over the objection of Gen. Eric Shinseki, then the Army’s chief of staff. Anyway, within hours of our conversation, I saw this AP item:

The Air Force general who runs the Pentagon’s missile defense projects said Wednesday that American interests would be “severely hurt” if decided to halt plans developed by the to install missile interceptors in .

That’s not to say Obama should try to roll the military, or that he shouldn’t take the services’ perspective into consideration. The Pentagon official’s point is more political: when asking the military to scrap desired programs that aren’t really neccessary, the president owes it to everyone to take a firm position and to expect everyone to stick to his decision. Procurement struggles are like knife fights in a dark alley: no time to show weakness.

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