MEADS: the $4B lesson

Its doubtful many defense watchers missed the headlines of Nov. 6 where two targets were successfully engaged by three Patriot Advanced Capability missiles in the final demonstration test of the $4B Medium Extended Air Defense System or MEADS program.  Videos of missiles flying out and targets blowing up are always good publicity and this successful test, while not particularly challenging, is no trivial accomplishment.

Unfortunately, all the headlines on MEADS’ dual missile success engender only a false feeling of potential resurrection for the beleaguered program. Before we jump to action and plow billions of dollars back into MEADS, let’s look back on the program, see what we learned for the $4B invested, and put the future into context.

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First, MEADS started in the ‘90s as a follow-on to the Patriot system and had a development schedule that would enable fielding by 2008. The program was technically aspiring to provide highly mobile 360 degree air defense against a wider range of targets than the original Patriot system. It was also massive with projected costs in the tens of billions of dollars and complex with an international component of German and Italian participation.

From early on, both technical and management risks were widely regarded as high, so dedicated organizations and integrated product teams were stood up. The organization grew to successfully secure funding yet failed to progress on the technical and program risks. At the Pentagon funding remained plentiful in the wake of 9/11 and the nation’s focus shifted to real-world operations. To meet the urgent needs, the Patriot Air Defense system evolved through necessity. In fact, Patriot has even grown to include the same PAC-3 MSE (Missile Segment Enhancement) missile used in the final MEADS test.

Sadly, MEADS as a program did not match the evolution of Patriot and progress of other teams. While money poured in, cost grew by more than $2B and fielding delayed by a decade. The Army did what they needed to do and effectively opened up the architecture of the air and missile systems to fill the capability gaps with the best value solutions. In 2010 Northrop Grumman won the Integrated Air and Missile Defense Battle Command System that networks missiles and sensors. By 2011, the Army simply had enough of MEADS poor program performance and was unable justify its “at best” marginal capability improvement. They formally terminated the program at the $4B mark.   

Books could and probably should be written on this squandered investment. Should we wonder how the US military is so deft in killing enemy targets, yet the Pentagon perpetually struggles in killing even the most pitifully performing programs. Acquisition strategists should certainly be weary of mega-programs that include international partners and powerful contractor teams.

While it’s nothing new that contractors should deliver to their proposal, ill-defined complex programs that are ungainly and slow to respond will be consumed by reality. MEADS lumbering development was overcome by events, all the while new technical opportunities grew elsewhere as Pentagon funding shrunk with sequestration. Now the Army is forced into revolutionary change in lieu of military readiness, capability, and capacity loss. Fortunately, the Army had a solid backup plan with the upgraded Patriot system as a foundation.

No doubt proponents of MEADS will argue this demo changes everything. The problem is this latest test is just the tip of the proverbial development and procurement iceberg. Even the most liberal testers would require another half-dozen live tests and significant ground evaluations that would cost upwards of $1 billion. Assuming no costly problems were found, procurement would add another $17 billion or more to the program. With that price tag, it doesn’t make sense to resurrect MEADS even in indulgent times.

The budget outlook and realities of today make resurrection of MEADS totally moot. Plans or practices that waste what amounted to be $800 million since the 2011 termination for this fun, but meaningless test must simply end. 

The air and missile defense mission set is critical from a strategic, as well as a tactical point of view, but our fiscal situation dictates that all investments must deliver a timely return on investment in the form of capabilities that can be swiftly placed in the warfighters’ hands. We must apply this logic to modernization programs, as Congress must demand but support sound and thorough justifications for the Army’s path to the future.

Newton is a retired test pilot with over 30 years development and acquisition experience with the Pentagon.