When it comes to budget cutting, there comes a time when some programs simply have to be dumped.
If only it were that simple.
For example, Congress earlier this year scrapped the Defense Weather Satellite System, forcing the Pentagon to re-trench and substitute another satellite system. The next-generation polar observatory platform was in development by Northrop Grumman for a 2018 launch date when it got the ax. About 170 private sector jobs were lost. Less obvious was some advanced science anticipated by the program that was also lost.
Experts, of course, raised their concerns about the efficacy of the substitutes well before the decision.
In a 2010 blog post written for the Lexington Institute, a conservative think tank, chief operating officer and defense analyst Loren Thompson said plans to terminate the program were short sighted and would deny the military critical weather information used to protect troops in combat.
“It is a sad commentary about how budget pressures are forcing military services to make dangerous choices,” he wrote.
The Pentagon nevertheless said it could retrench and shift priorities.
Richard McKinney, deputy undersecretary of the Air Force for space programs, told reporters after President Barack Obama signed the bill scrapping the program early this year that the Air Force will be “fine” and have enough weather data as long as there are no problems with the launch of the two remaining weather satellites.
The Air Force said it plans to refurbish two remaining Defense Meteorological Satellite Program satellites for launch into space in the next several years.
The back-and-forth proposals in the budgeting process, however, suggest how the program got caught between a celestial rock and a hard place.
The Air Force requested $445 million in 2012 for DWSS. But the budget act of 2012 only provided $43 million in shut-down costs for the program.
The program wasn’t helped by the fact that it had a checkered history of delays, questions of mismanagement and its share of congressional reservations.
The program was begun in 2010 when the president ended the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System, which was over budget. That program was split in two, with the military taking DWSS and NOAA pursuing a separate system. The NOAA system will continue.
In the end, the Senate Appropriations Committee called for cancelling the DWSS program while the House called for cutting the program in half. The House preserved it in initial legislation before going along with the Senate.
The satellite system redundancy, if that’s what it is, is just one example of budget cutting issues across every federal agencies that managers will have to confront in an era of increasingly lower spending.
Christopher Preble, vice president for defense and policy studies at the CATO Institute, said while some redundancy in systems is worthwhile, it’s appropriate for the Pentagon to shift its focus to a different satellite system if Congress scraps one. There’s a lesson there for other government managers.
“That’s called leveraging the capacity you have,” he said.
But he warned government managers not to lose focus on prioritizing while trying to do more with less.
He suggested managers approach budget cuts from the point of deciding whether this “reflects a wise, choice, prioritizing things in a different way. That’s fine, or is it just shifting money around to maintain the status quo and not evaluating priorities.”
From Thompson’s view, he still maintains the decision may prove to be short sited.
“By cancelling that weather satellite, Congress saddled U.S. military forces with old technology that won’t be able to tell them many of the things they need to know,” he said.