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Skepticism Toward Programs

By | January 15, 2007

      Sen. Levin Urges Slowing Major BMD Programs, While Stressing Others

      Congress should slow and stretch out programs to create a multi-layered ballistic missile defense (BMD) shield, while emphasizing instead programs providing air defenses against short and medium-range missiles such as cruise weapons, a key senator said.

      Lawmakers should take a doubting wait-and-see attitude toward programs attempting to counter long-range ballistic missile threats, until there is concrete proof in tests that those BMD programs will work, Levin said to journalists at a Defense Writers Group breakfast.

      Levin previously has expressed skepticism toward BMD programs, saying he wonders whether they would work in a real-world situation to annihilate incoming enemy intercontinental ballistic missiles.

      He was asked by Space & Missile Defense Report whether the new Democratic-led Congress would continue to support the Airborne Laser (ABL), Ground-based Missile Defense (GMD), Aegis sea-based defense and other anti-missile programs, as the previous Republican-led Congress had.

      These programs involve The Boeing Co. [BA], Lockheed Martin Corp. [LMT], Northrop Grumman Corp. [NOC], Raytheon Co. [RTN] and other major contractors.

      Levin responded that he would favor slowing these programs until they are proven to be effective. Key tests of some systems are set for next year.

      Congress already went on record in defense legislation last year as wishing to emphasize defenses against short- or medium-range missiles, rather than long-range weapons, Levin said.

      “I think that last year’s bill, we said we’re going to focus on defense against short-range missiles, [with defense systems such as] Aegis and THAAD, and I’m missing one or two, but that was going to be our focus,” Levin said, referring to the Theater High Altitude Area Defense shield.

      Congress should focus on funding defenses against more likely threats, not on systems guarding against threats he sees as less likely, he said.

      Some analysts say even a rogue nation such as North Korea is unlikely to fire a nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missile at the United States or its interests or allies, because that would draw guaranteed devastation in a rain of U.S. nuclear-tipped ICBMs.

      Shorter-range or medium-range missiles are far more likely to be used against U.S. forces or interests, Levin said.

      “That was [seen in defense legislation last year as] a greater threat rather than long-range missiles,” he said. “And that was with a Republican Congress.”

      Now, it is true that the GOP-led Congress continued last year to provide financial support for programs in the multi-layered shield against long-range enemy missiles, he acknowledged.

      “That language was in the bill, even though we continued on the ballistic missile defense, that nonetheless, people felt that we needed to have greater proof of the capability of the [ABL, GMD and Aegis sea-based programs to ensure that] in fact, the system will work as advertised,” he noted.

      And proof of the efficacy of those major programs isn’t imminent, he said.

      “There’s still a long way to go to get operational testing done, and we ought to put a greater focus on the ballistic missile – on missile defense against shorter – medium- range missiles,” he said. “I think that would continue, probably even more so.”

      Meanwhile, Congress should insist the major systems prove themselves, and delay those programs until then, he said.

      “Hopefully, there’s going to be a greater demand by the Congress for proof that these systems work, these … BMD systems work before we continue buying the last flight of missiles, the last bloc of missiles.

      “You ought to put purchases of these missiles on hold to the extent we can,” Levin stated. “We’ve done a lot of funding of long-lead items, that we ought to slow down the final blocks of these missile purchases, not deploy ’em until we’re sure that they work.. I think that will be a greater – be greater instinct to do that. It was already there last year.”

      Aside from slowing funding for the major BMD programs, Levin also raised another issue that may concern leading contractors: they may face lengthy committee hearings into procurement controversies.

      For example, as far as the Air Force now pressing forward with a new plan to acquire aerial refueling tanker aircraft, aircraft requirements must ensure that there is a genuine competition in the contract award, Levin said.

      Requirements are critical here.

      Boeing, which previously had an Air Force deal to acquire 100 of its KC-767 aerial tanker refueling aircraft for $23.5 billion, has a long history of making tanker planes, and the company has developed a new high-tech remote control refueling boom with 3-D video display capability. Boeing also touts its plane for its versatility and ability to use many airfields. And the company also might offer a larger plane than the KC-767, such as a tanker based on the 777 airliner.

      But Boeing is opposed for the new Air Force tanker contract. The competing plane is the KC-30, made by Airbus Industrie, a unit of European Aeronautic Defence and Space Co., in a team headed by prime contractor Northrop Grumman [NOC]. Airbus now has developed an advanced boom technology as well.

      Northrop recently pressured the Air Force to weigh not only the aerial tanking capability of the KC-767 versus the KC-30, but also to consider the ability of each aircraft to perform other missions, such as troop or materiel transport, or medevac of wounded troops.

      On those other missions, the KC-30 would be able to carry more than the KC-767, giving the Airbus plane the edge.

      Northrop recently threatened to withdraw from the tanker contract competition unless requirements for the new plane give specific weight to the ability to perform those other missions.

      Levin said the new tanker acquisition process must ensure open competition.

      Citing Air Force leaders and procurement policymakers, “They’re going to have to persuade us that there’s real competition,” Levin said.

      Some lawmakers such as former House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) have objected to any move to give the tanker contract to the Northrop/Airbus team, saying it should go to U.S.-based Boeing instead.

      But Boeing has been criticized harshly by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the incoming ranking Republican on the SASC.

      McCain helped to unearth a conflict of interest involving an Air Force procurement official, Darleen Druyun, who successfully sought a $250,000 a year job with Boeing at the same time that she was handling negotiations with the firm on the former tanker aircraft lease-purchase deal. She said in federal court she agreed to a $23.5 billion price she thought to be excessive as a way to curry favor with her future employer.

      For its part, however, Boeing noted that it helped to bring the conflict of interest to light; fired Druyun and the Boeing CFO who hired her, Mike Sears; was unaware that she thought the price excessive; and the company cooperated fully with investigations of the situation.

      The controversy was aired fully over the past several years in SASC hearings. However, it now is likely that there will be further hearings into this situation, and into other incidents.

      Levin was asked whether the committee will probe the tanker lease matter, and whether the SASC will look into a situation in which Lockheed Martin planned to use an Embraer plane for an aerial sensor platform when the aircraft turned out to be too small to carry the sensor load, as well as whether the committee will investigate billing irregularities of contractors providing services in the Iraq battlefield area.

      Levin said the committee will investigate all of those items, adding that, “Looking back, it will be the abuses, and looking forward, it will be the capabilities” that contractors offer the Pentagon.

      “We’re also going to do a lot on acquisition, acquisition reform. It’s both backward and forward in that sense, I guess,” he said, meaning probing past acquisition problems and reforms that might avert woes in the future.

      Levin said there have been “gaps” in reviewing contracting foulups, adding that more congressional reviews are required.

      “The whole acquisition reform area does require oversight as sort of a prelude to any changes in law,” Levin said, without specifying just what new reform laws might require of defense contractors.

      Levin also commented on the decades-long program to acquire the premiere fighter, the F-22A Raptor supersonic stealth fighter aircraft.

      The senator said he has no objections to Lockheed vigorously lobbying last year on behalf of the Raptor, saying that such activities are the First Amendment right of any company.

      Levin added that he is unsure whether the Raptor program will move ahead in a multi-year contract. The plane, the best fighter in the air or on the drawing boards of any nation, was to involve buying 750 planes; then it was cut, and the Air Force said 381 were needed; then the buy was chopped to 277; then it was cut to 183.

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