U.S. forces were chasing down the last organized groups of Taliban and al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan. Capt. Nelson Kraft's troops fanned out across the Shahi Kowt Valley ... and found more bad guys than they were looking for.
Mortar rounds, rifle fire and smoke bathed the battlefield. "We were fighting off, in my best estimate, 50 to 100 [enemy fighters] in the west, 50 to 100 in the east, and 50 to 100 to our north," Kraft recalls. "They were popping in and out of the [ravines] and heading toward our position."
That desperate fight helped teach a valuable lesson: Stateside marksmanship training, where soldiers took pot shots at static targets without the distractions of chaotic battle sounds and sights, left riflemen poorly prepared for the moving battles of Afghanistan and Iraq.
The Marine Corps quickly drafted a "requirement" for more realistic training targets. Enter a small Australian technology company, Marathon Robotics, inventor of "smart targets."
Marathon mounts human-shaped targets on Segways programmed to dart about a firing range the same way Taliban fighters dash from cover to cover. Sophisticated computers let the targets move autonomously. Clothed in armor, they can take repeated hits.
The Marines knew about Marathon Robotics only because of the Foreign Comparative Test program. Started in the 1990s, the FCT initiative lets U.S. forces test and evaluate foreign technologies that might satisfy our defense needs. It just makes sense. Why spend money for research and development -- and spend years waiting or it to bear fruit -- if the Pentagon could just buy what it needed off the shelf?
Since its inception, the FCT program has expedited delivery of much-need capabilities to American men and women on the battlefield. Dozens of successful programs have been conducted through the years. Last year, Marathon Robotics received a $50 million contract from the Marine Corps.
Programs like the FCT initiative save money, enhance the capacity of U.S. forces, and strengthen ties with friends and allies like Australia. So guess what is reportedly on the list for cuts in the Pentagon budget? That's right, the money-saving Foreign Comparative Test program.
The FCT is a prime example of what's wrong with many of the "savings" offered up by Defense Robert Secretary Robert Gates. On March 14, Gates issued "Track Four Efficiency Initiatives Decisions," a 46-page memorandum trumpeted as a catalog of military savings.
But what's missing throughout most of the memo is an explanation of where, exactly, the net savings part comes in. Long lists of slashed positions, contractors, and programs? Yes. But no mention of the capabilities being cut. Where is the cost-benefit analysis?
Any homeowner can easily "save" money: Just stop paying the mortgage. But it's not a smart way to go. And that's the point: Some savings are smarter than others.
Much of Gates' savings program smacks of generic salami-slicing rather than thoughtful reforming geared to improve efficiencies. As an example, the Pentagon could save tens of billions just by reforming its logistics practices to make them half as efficient as FedEx. But there is none of that in Gates' memo.
Instead, the secretary offers bland gruel such as "Under Secretary of Defense Comptroller. ... Eliminate two (2) contractors acting as staff augmentees. ... estimated FY12 savings of $373,000." Smart move? Who knows? It's not explained.
If Congress is really serious about saving money and preserving military capability, it should closely scrutinize what the Pentagon's up to. Yet even as our military is being committed to yet another operation -- this time in Libya -- many in Congress blithely endorse defense cuts without any serious examination of how they might affect military readiness.
James Jay Carafano is a senior research fellow for national security at the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in The Examiner