You’d think that after spending a decade adapting to threats like improvised explosive devices, the U.S. Army would be a little more imaginative about what kinds of challenges future enemies might pose. Well, no such luck. Having allocated over a billion dollars to develop defenses against future air threats — manned and unmanned — it now proposes to forego fielding anything new so the money can be spent on more pressing needs. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out why this move is being made: few of the Army’s current enemies have air forces, so nobody’s worried about air threats. Planners will focus on improving air defenses if and when an enemy with airplanes comes along.
That leaves the Medium Extended Air Defense System (MEADS) in big trouble. The tri-nation program being developed in cooperation with Germany and Italy was supposed to replace the venerable Patriot as the Army’s main air-defense weapon. Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced earlier this year that the Pentagon would fund MEADS until development was complete in 2013, but then defer fielding. The reason it wasn’t killed immediately was that under the agreement with the two allies, premature termination would force the U.S. to pay them over $800 million for their troubles. So policymakers decided they might as well spend the money to complete development, thereby avoiding termination liabilities and having a next-generation air defense system on the shelf when needed.
There are only two problems with this plan. First, it leaves future Army leaders with a huge bill to maintain the aging and considerably less capable Patriot. Patriot is so costly to operate that retiring it would largely cover the cost of fielding MEADS. The second problem is that key members of Congress want to claim money from the new system right now rather than completing development, despite the termination payments to allies that would then result. Somebody in industry — I can’t imagine who — has spun up a gaggle of pundits to encourage Congress in this budgetary myopia, conveniently failing to mention what the cumulative cost is likely to be for the Army and U.S. taxpayers.
I’m not going to spend a lot of time here explaining why MEADS is far, far superior to Patriot — the fact that it can defend eight times as much territory as a Patriot battery for less cost, requires only a quarter as much airlift to deploy, and so on. Suffice it to say that MEADS was designed to rectify all the deficiencies noted in the existing system (I got an earful just yesterday from a former Patriot operator about how difficult it is to reposition Patriot as threats shift). But today’s debate isn’t really about whether MEADS would perform better, it’s about who’s wasting money. My gut tells me Congress is about to waste the better part of a billion dollars in the near term and much more money over the long term because it doesn’t understand the consequences of the steps it is taking on air defense.
So instead of blundering into another budget debacle, why doesn’t the Hill go to the one place where it can get an objective assessment of its air defense options? I’m talking, of course, about the Government Accountability Office. GAO can explain quickly and clearly what the cost of various courses of action would be. Once legislators have this information, they can decide when it makes sense to terminate MEADS, and whether termination makes sense at all. A simple study by GAO could save the government billions of dollars, so rushing into a decision without having the necessary information in hand is irresponsible. If MEADS is a waste of money, GAO will explain why. And if Patriot turns out to cost the Army more money for less protection, doesn’t Congress want to know that?
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