Amid concerns about U.S. defense budget cuts after withdrawals from Afghanistan and Iraq, and worries about a crippling sequestration, there has arisen the question of more funding for the Medium Extended Air Defense System (MEADS).
MEADS is a case study of a weapon system that should be evaluated against cost overruns, delays and the lack of any real military benefit. Since the likelihood that MEADS will be completed and deployed is virtually zero, the value of additional funding is diminished to hoping for future benefits from designing a new radar system, and using it to deflect German and Italian demands for more U.S. spending on the entire system.
These two rationales are not sufficient to warrant continued funding of the MEADS program. Additionally, in the current fiscal environment, a decision to continue investing in any weapon system must be based first and foremost on the military value of that system and secondly on the usefulness of technological spinoffs.
Just as we can no longer afford to keep unneeded weapon systems alive for reasons solely related to supporting domestic and foreign jobs, neither can we afford to do so to satisfy international partners whose appeals for continued U.S. funding come in a not-very-subtle message that defunding would jeopardize trans-Atlantic relations. The U.S. should counter these threats respectfully, yet firmly, and emphasize at the highest levels that the strengths of our trans-Atlantic alliances do not depend on American money for foreign labor on a weapon system, especially a system none of the three partner countries in the consortium ever intends to deploy.
Among military benefits MEADS promised were mobility, enhanced intercept capability as compared to the Patriot air defense system, and 360-degree radar coverage. Yet MEADS mobility is more akin to “move-ability,” given its reliance on 5-ton trucks for movement to deployment sites once delivered by C-130 aircraft.
No one seriously argues these days that MEADS would be truly mobile in support of maneuvers by U.S. forces in some future conflict. In fact, an internal Army memo in 2010 reported that MEADS would not meet U.S. requirements or address current and emerging threats without extensive and costly modifications. Clearly, the hoped-for mobility does not loom large for the Army.
The MEADS kill element was to be the very capable Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) missile, already scheduled for deployment with existing Patriot batteries. What remains of value in MEADS is the nonexistent battle management and radar systems, including the 360-degree fire control radar that is necessary to address the cruise missile threat. That proposed radar is the only possible gain to be had for more U.S. funding of MEADS.
At the most, future funding for MEADS should be exclusively focused on sharply defined development criteria related to the radar, a point seemingly absent from congressional debate, Pentagon lobbying or demands from allies.
MEADS has cost $2 billion and is 10 years behind schedule. It has no place in President Barack Obama’s European Phased Adaptive Approach, whose four phases extend missile defense deployments beyond 2020. What would be its contribution unconnected with that strategy, and at such a late date?
The U.S. needs to decide among three options:
It could continue to provide full funding for the program, despite the enormous cost and knowing deployment will never happen.
The U.S. could end funding, since the Department of Defense has said there are no termination fees unless Congress appropriates additional funds for MEADS.
The U.S. could align its position with the German decision to fund only proof-of-concept work focused on radar components in order to reap at least some benefit from the huge investment already made. There is substantial support in the German government today that would agree to an early joint termination of the program.
This option must be carefully evaluated to ascertain what military benefits might result, if any, in what time frame, and at what cost. Answers remain unclear.
In the meantime, agreement should be reached with our allies to terminate all other components of the program at zero cost. The funding debate over MEADS must be driven only by U.S. military needs and costs. Thus far, it has been obscured by politics, lobbying and vague propositions.
Unless it is absolutely certain that something useful can be salvaged from the huge investment, MEADS should be quickly terminated. It is time to clear the air.
Jeffrey Starr is currently a managing partner of Neo Prime Solutions, a cybersecurity company in Alexandria, Va., and Silicon Valley, and formerly a member of the U.S. Delegation on Nuclear and Space Arms in the administrations of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.