MEADS miss the target: Time to decisively move on

What shall we do with a decade-late program that is $2 billion-plus over budget, not transitioning to production and not wanted by any of the sponsoring nations?

Pentagon answer: sink another $800M into it and carry it through 2013! 

A fiction writer couldn’t make this stuff up let alone couple it to the current environment of fiscal crisis and a US military engaged in a multitude of shooting wars across the globe.

The program is the Medium Extended Air Defense System better known as MEADS. The US leads the cooperative development with Italy and Germany who have also made it clear they will not transition the program to production. It seems equally clear that with both partners suffering from similar economic challenges they are looking for Pentagon leadership to a swift exit.

Sadly, the Pentagon acquisition education doesn’t seem to translate to application or include effective learning. Instead of acting decisively, a fundamental military principle on the battlefield, the Pentagon with the allies in tow will dump over a billion dollars more into a failed program. As if that isn’t enough, what lesson does it teach the program team and contractors? It should be. ‘If you fail to perform you are ripe for termination and we will act decisively.’ It should not be, ‘We’ll just continue to support poor performance or in the case where we were wrong in the path we chose or mis-forecasted our needs, we will shift to programs providing the needed capabilities and terminate for convenience.’

The Pentagon’s justification to continue is at best a luxury we cannot afford in this necessary era of Congressional cost cutting. While there would be contract termination fees associated with ending the program now, those fees would still be millions of tax dollars less than the Pentagon’s proposed spending on the program and in the spirit of transatlantic cooperation provide similar savings for our allies. As for the notion of harvesting useful technology resulting from MEADS continued development, any technology would need to be integrated into an existing or emerging weapons system and can best be done through that program, not MEADS. Every day war planners ponder the fate of MEADS is another delay and dollar in implementing the next generation of advancements in the Patriot missile, a proven system in wide use among US and allied forces.

In the end the only relevant measure of merit is capability delivered to the war fighter. For MEADS we need to “stick a fork in it” and move onto making the most of Patriot and structure follow-on opportunities that motivate performance and deliver improved capabilities.

Robert Newton is a former Pentagon acquisitions officer and retired test pilot.