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Hulsman: What the Patriot Missile Deployment to Turkey Tells Us About Future Weapons Procurement in an Age of Austerity

As the sequester ominously looms over the new Congress, about the only thing legislators on both sides of the aisle can agree to is that this is an awful way to make intelligent cuts to the budget, in terms of both domestic and defense spending. Given that this cliché is obviously true, it does beg the questions: Is there a better way to do this? What will future defense spending look like in the new age of austerity? For answers to these questions, leaders on Capitol Hill should look to what is presently going on in real time (and in real life) in the Middle East.

With the murderous Assad clan increasingly losing its grip on power, alarm bells have been going off in next-door Ankara, and with good reason. Turkey — early and often — has been the unabashed champion of the Syrian revolt. As both the primary sponsor of the fractious rebels opposing the government, as well as the generous protector of the tens of thousands of refugees who have made it across the 550-mile border, the Erdogan government has clearly and unequivocally taken a stand not likely to endear itself to the desperate and dying tyranny next door.

As if on cue, increased tensions have arisen along the Syrian-Turkish border, whereby five Turkish citizens were killed by artillery fire in the village of Akcakale in October 2012. With the Assad government now using Scud missiles on its own people, and with the rebels increasingly holding the border region, the not hysterical fear has arisen in Ankara that Damascus could — in the last extremity — let loose missile-launched chemical weapons at rebels in northern Syria, a prospect that could lead to massive tragedy in Turkey itself.

And the Erdogan government’s response to this mortal threat? Having NATO deploy Patriot missile batteries from allies in the Netherlands, Germany, and the United States to safeguard Turkey’s southeastern flank. Turkey did not ask its allies to begin drawing up plans for a new and untried weapons system that might (or might not) help it ten years down the line, nor did they ask for something that in terms of cost would break the alliance bank. No, instead they ask for help with what works.

This little Patriot deployment vignette, of a country under genuine strategic pressure acting in a rational, predictable manner, then illustrates broader general lessons for where overall U.S. defense spending itself is heading in this new age of austerity. Congress should take note. Those systems that adhere to our Patriot guidelines will continue to thrive in the new era, while those that don’t are unlikely to find much funding in a country that, as President Barack Obama has put it, must begin nation-building at home.

Lesson 1: Invest in systems with a real-world pedigree. There is no need to reinvent the wheel; in the case of the Patriot deployment Turkey is merely opting for protection from a missile defense system that has already been operational for more than 20 years. Two hundred fire units have already been fielded worldwide. Nor is the Patriot a system on its last legs; there are 40 Patriot fire units currently in production or undergoing modernization for five countries. The Patriot is not something new and untested; having had a real world past, present, and secure future. Weapons systems with this pedigree will survive any number of challenging budgets, for the simple fact that they are part of concrete strategic calculations. Conversely, it is new and untried systems that will and ought to raise eyebrows at congressional budget hearings. With multiple and looming threats around the globe, it is imperative the U.S. invests in systems it knows and trusts.

Lesson 2: Invest in systems our allies already turn to. The Patriot is the missile defense system of choice for 12 countries, including the U.S., five NATO allies, plus Japan, Israel, and Saudi Arabia. Crucially, the Patriot is interoperable, meaning these close-knit allies can work together, jointly using the Patriot to create (as in the case of the Dutch, Germans, and Americans in Turkey) a seamless missile defense response to whatever comes. Given the miniscule spending in many of our NATO allies, it is no small thing to have secured their buy-in to an interoperable missile defense system. Any weapons system jointly shared by America’s core allies will continue to provide value for money in these straightened times.

Lesson 3: Invest in systems that are cost effective. The Patriot system costs only $809 million to maintain per year. Better still, Patriot costs are shared among the 12 partners, funded by all those that use it, meaning that for once Uncle Sam is not left to haplessly sign a blank check, but rather is the largest (but not predominant) contributor to costs, as befits America’s position in the world.

As Congress deals with sequestration and the appropriations process in the coming months, it is more critical than ever that our defense dollars are spent wisely. That is what makes the story of the Patriot deployment to Turkey so important; it is a real-world example illustrating far broader principles for procurement in the new era. Systems with a proven pedigree, that allies already use, and that are cost effective are and must be the future. I hope Congress and the White House are paying attention.

Dr. John C. Hulsman is president and co-founder of John C. Hulsman Enterprises and a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

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