Congress must clean up MEADS mess

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Patriot missiles have come a long way since 1991.  We shot them at Scuds back then because they were all we had, and they were versatile enough to swing to a non-traditional role. In 2003, we shot them at Scuds because that’s what they were designed for and they performed superbly.

The integrated air defense network the United States maintains over any battle space it occupies is second to none. I recently taught that integrated system to Air Force officers destined to serve with ground units and confidently explained that for any air threat from low level to near orbit Patriot would swat the offending aircraft from the sky.

It is clear that the U.S. has nothing that is better, faster, or cheaper. The closest we’ve been able to come in recent years is something called the Medium Extended Air Defense System -- MEADS for short.  In 1996, we got together with Germany and Italy and split the cost of developing the system that would eclipse Patriot, in theory.

In practice, we got a system scheduled to be operational in 2008 that can’t be ready to protect our troops until 2018. A system that originally was supposed to cost $2 to $3 billion, now conservatively is estimated to run $19 billion (which is defense speak for $20 billion-plus).

The Army asked that MEADS be shelved in 2010.  Germany has begun to question its ability (read: willingness) to pay for the program. Italy is having problems with its own balance sheets; the last thing in the world on their minds is how to pay for a new interceptor missile.

The missile itself also brings it share of problems and concerns. The specification required that it be C-130/CH-47/CH-53 transportable, which is to say moveable by current theater tactical aviation. The good news is we mostly retired the CH-53 so we don’t have to pretend it fits in those anymore. 

C-130s and CH-47s, on the other hand, will be flown by the current generation’s children and possibly grandchildren. So MEADS had better fit in those aircraft. Except before the Army asked to cancel the program, they asked to be relieved of that requirement.

Many of us in the military remember well the debate about how many Strykers would fit in a C-17. The requirement was to be transportable by frontline theater aviation. All three participating countries use some or all of the specified aircraft. But unlike the United States, Germany and Italy don’t and won’t have C-17s to pick up the slack. The United States would be on the hook to move the MEADS for our allies as the battle space evolves. That is particularly troublesome considering we do not have enough C-17s for current commitments, let alone hauling our allies in the midst of a major theater war.

Debate rages whether there would be project termination costs should Congress try to eliminate MEADS once and for all. Some say yes and others say no. The Department of Defense has said both, but the latest communication to Congress suggested that the United States would not have to pay program termination costs because those were subject to “authorization and appropriation.” Translation: we can get out of MEADS without a hefty price tag.

This is a critical debate when you consider that Congress has painted itself and the defense of the United States into a box with so-called “sequestration.”  Lacking a pared down military budget, automatic cuts -- that scare all but the most hardened Occupy protestors -- are literally only months away.  

The DoD has no earthly notion really how it will deal with those cuts. They were made to be so mind-bogglingly draconian that no one, not even a divided Congress, would allow them to stand. Now these automatic cuts are roaring down on us like the juggernaut of legend and we are starting to wonder how to pick up the pieces.

One thing is certain because we’ve seen it countless times in the past: new, long-term projects that are funded will zero out the budgets of those they are scheduled to replace long before they are ready to replace them. That is bad news for our troops stationed abroad.

The solution should be simple. DoD is going to have to hunker down and protect what it has. Proven systems beat theoretical ones for the foreseeable future.

MEADS has already been relegated by the Army to a “Proof of Concept.” In the current budget environment, we can’t afford any more concepts. We already have a proven commodity in integrated air defense called Patriot. Our focus should be to keep it updated. Keep it evolving. Keep it relevant.

God forbid Iran draws down on Israel. God forbid North Korea goes eyeball with the world. Patriot is all that stands to defend innocent people from unspeakable evil. Debating whether to continue MEADS or end it outright needlessly distracts us at a time when we should be worried about what will need to be shot down in the next year, not in 2018.

In the end, it’s all about cleaning up the mess. MEADS is a mess. Congress needs to clean it up.

Koehler, a retired Air Force Lt. Colonel, served in Operations Desert Shield, Desert Storm, Enduring Freedom, and Iraqi Freedom. Lt. Col. Koehler has extensive experience with systems acquisition and operational testing, and most recently trained Air Force officers to advise Army and Marine Corps units on the safe, efficient utilization of air mobility assets.