Successful MEADS test delivers cost-effective option for US

Congratulations to the tri-national team for last week’s simultaneous destruction of a Lance tactical ballistic missile and an unmanned QF-4 aircraft above the White Sands Missile Range that marked continued flight test success for the Medium Extended Air Defense System (MEADS). This first-ever 360-degree dual intercept changed the equation as MEADS demonstrated abilities that no fielded air and missile defense (AMD) system can match.

Until November 6th, no AMD system had intercepted a mix of targets approaching from opposite directions. It conclusively demonstrated the protection our soldiers need against highly proliferated maneuverable threats.

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Unfortunately, despite German and Italian intentions to continue, the United States will exit the MEADS program next year. Citing budget constraints, the U.S. plans to continue modifying existing assets for the next 30 years. But our nation should consider building on its MEADS technology investment for these reasons:

1)            No other air and missile defense system can do what the MEADS radars and launchers just demonstrated. There are no alternatives in the U.S. arsenal, and full-perimeter protection is already needed. That’s why European interest remains vibrant. The threats are real, from maneuverable cruise missiles that attack from behind, to stealthy Russian SS-26 tactical ballistic missiles that perform evasive maneuvers to penetrate missile defenses.

2)            The MEADS dual intercept proves that 360-degree site defense technology is viable and available now. Originally, test plans called for intercepting only a tactical ballistic missile, but steady development progress encouraged the NATO management agency to expand test scope. With continued development, this capability can soon be operational.

3)            As Secretary of Defense Hagel told the CSIS Global Security Forum this month, capabilities like missile defense need our continued investment. We also need to prioritize in favor of a smaller, modern, capable military over a larger force with older equipment. We will favor a more mobile, globally active, and engaged force over a garrison force.

4)            Because of its involvement in the MEADS program, the U.S. can harvest newly developed plug-and-fight radars, launchers, and tactical operations centers that can be applied to future networks in any quantity, but with immediate impact on range, versatility and lethality. They offer capability to custom match AMD resources to asset and mission needs. All have 360-degree capability, can be transported anywhere in the world on a few aircraft, and can move with and provide protective cover for our exposed forces.

Three sets of the MEADS launchers, radars and battle managers have been built and tested, along with the open-architecture network software that connects them. Remarkably, the U.S. investment has been kept relatively low at $2.5 billion thanks to the shared commitment of Germany and Italy.

Congress should take note that ongoing modernization of the existing Patriot AMD system has cost more than $4 billion during the same time, and it remains on a trajectory that will continue to cost $12 billion over the next 30 years. After 10 years of modernization, it remains too heavy to fly, retains a proprietary software architecture, defends only a forward sector and still relies on a 40-year-old architecture. Systems designed by a previous generation of engineers, limited by yesterday’s design technology, cannot be easily transformed into defenses our forces already need.

The U.S. now has options – and can quickly reap benefits. The demonstrated networked MEADS radars, launchers and battle managers can now be brought onto an AMD network without the cost penalty to network older systems. Without leveraging the investment in MEADS, it will be difficult to achieve a near-term expeditionary capability for the Army.

Fortunately, the air and missile defense system of the future has been successfully demonstrated NOW. We must not let the investment in this much-needed networked capability fall by the wayside. 

Cavin is the former commanding general of the U.S. Army Air Defense Center at Fort Bliss, Texas, and a former Lockheed Martin executive. Lockheed Martin is a major subcontractor for the MEADS system in the U.S.