The Senate has an opportunity this week to exercise some common sense by finally ending the funding for a defunct missile defense system. An amendment to the pending continuing resolution by Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) would cut funding for the Medium Extended Air Defense System (MEADS), which was supposed to be the next generation of missile defense.
Though a noble effort, MEADS has failed. It has been beset by delays, cost overruns and “technical difficulties.” In 2011, the Department of Defense decided to end the program, stating in plain language that MEADS would never be deployed. The 2012 National Defense Authorization Act, which was signed into law in December, specifically prohibited further spending on the system’s development.
Earlier this month, House appropriators signed off on a final $348 million to pay for the program’s termination costs, presumably a gentlemanly way of accommodating MEADS International, the joint venture comprised of Lockheed Martin and other defense firms including European Union contractors affiliated with the program’s partners, Germany and Italy.
Despite all this, a wrong-headed opinion persists that MEADS is an essential program that is necessary to the Army’s missile defense capabilities. The fact is it’s not and it isn’t.
One of MEADS’ big selling points is that it can provide 360 degrees of coverage. But the Army doesn’t need a missile defense system that provides 360 degrees of coverage (the Navy does, and already has such a system: AEGIS). If our ground forces need a missile battery to cover their rear, then we have much bigger problems to worry about. In any case, the existing Patriot missile system could provide 360-degree coverage simply by employing three multi-functional radars, a fact MEADS supporters routinely fail to acknowledge.
Upgrading proven missile systems, especially the Patriot system, would be cheaper and more practical than developing MEADS.
What we’re hearing about MEADS right now is the death rattle of a program that should have died long ago but has been kept on life support thanks to congressional patrons and the earmarks they can deliver. Candidly, I’d be surprised if any defense contractor decided to go quietly into the night with a multibillion-dollar program on the line. This could account for the Hail Marys that are being tossed by the program’s few remaining supporters in the hope that the Senate will somehow revive a program that’s prohibited by law from receiving additional tax money for development.
Yesterday’s ideas sometimes fall short of meeting tomorrow’s needs. MEADS is a Clinton-era program that failed to launch despite the best efforts of all. Even without the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act, the anti-MEADS sentiment in Congress and the sequester, MEADS would be dying. The Senate now has a chance to do what the House did not. The time has come to pay our last respects and move on.
Ed Timperlake is a former Pentagon director for technology assessment/international technology security.