-- This column is written by Dean G. Popps, the former Army acquisition executive and acting assistant secretary of the Army for Acquisition Logistics and Technology during both the Bush and Obama administrations. He also served ex officio on the U.S. Army Board of Directors to the Missile Defense Agency.
The stalemate in the U.S. Senate over the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) exemplifies our nation’s struggle to adjust to a new normal while attempting to balance our defense and domestic agendas. In this hyper-conscious budget environment, leaders in the Pentagon and Capitol Hill have the unenviable task of meeting ever-increasing demands on our military with far fewer federal dollars.
That’s what makes the contradiction of continued funding of a system, described by a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee as a “missile to nowhere,” baffling to any common sense observer.
Let’s rewind. The Medium Extended Air Defense System (MEADS) is a joint program started in 1995 in a pre-September 11 and pre-European Union debt crisis environment. The program's partners include the United States, Italy and Germany. The nominal notion was to build a follow-on air defense system to the hugely successful Patriot system, still in use today.
Our country’s missile defense relies heavily on strategically located U.S. Army Air and Missile Defense units deployed with the Patriot as well as the U.S. Navy’s AEGIS system at sea. Both of these systems have worked long and well, and the programs have undergone multiple upgrades and improvements along the way, such as the PAC-3, which redesigned the software and radar to greatly increase the system's discrimination and tracking abilities, among other upgrades.
Unfortunately, MEADS, an earlier attempt to “share the burden” among allies, is nearing a 20-year, $2 billion dollar run, and is not in final production or deployment. So, it’s become an expensive, experimental, unproven burden to the U.S.. pocketbook that sits on the shelf, and -- with each passing and expensive year -- becomes less and less likely to ever be fielded or used. The cold realities since 1995 have changed, and so has the world we live in.
Interestingly, MEADS does continue to provide high-tech employment for Italians and Germans, even though those countries together contribute only about 40 percent of the costs. Critics have called this arrangement a “European jobs program,” and they have a point.
Recently, a costly “proof of concept” live fire at White Sands Missile Range proved little other than three very expensive missiles can intercept the same three threats that current in-use systems can with less cost. This did not constitute a "test" in any sense of the word, nor was it billed as such. But advancing our capability against complex threats does not seem to be an outcome of this event.
A last and important fact to this narrative is important to note. The U.S. Army has said “no” to buying MEADS. It’s unaffordable and doesn't meet the Army’s changed requirements, they say. The Army and the DOD have said they are committed to ending the relationship, and the Army maintains that there is little or nothing to harvest from the program. Yet despite pleas from military requirements and budget officials, the money continues to flow.
Somehow, MEADS has nine costly lives. Perhaps, it is some misguided attempt to be a good NATO partner, or perhaps it has to do with the partners in the coalition fight in Afghanistan. Or most certainly it has to do with the pull created by the program's “friends” on Capitol Hill.
In any case, in this environment and at this time in history, many of us are calling for the administration’s political will and courage at all levels -- from the White House, to the National Security Advisor and staff, to the Office of Management and Budget, and to the Secretary of Defense in consultation with the Secretary of State -- to put an end to an endeavor using precious tax dollars at a time in which it is no longer needed, wanted or explainable to the citizens of this country.