The Medium Extended Air Defense System (MEADS) was conceived in 1996 as a tri-nation program to provide the U.S. Army and its counterparts in Germany and Italy with mobile next-generation air defenses. After 15 years of research and development, the program produced an agile system able to defend eight times more battle space than the legacy Patriot with fewer assets. Its performance in tests against simulated threats was outstanding. Nonetheless, in early 2011 the Department of Defense announced that the program would be terminated after its development was completed — a move that the Army had been quietly advocating behind the scenes for some time.
The Army’s official explanation for why MEADS was killed after spending $2.5 billion in taxpayer funds was cost growth, schedule delays and a cumbersome management structure. However, now a rigorous study performed under the auspices of the Defense Acquisition University has fingered one additional reason for the demise of MEADS — and it may have been the decisive factor. Author Stephen L. Hammonds found in surveying dozens of officials associated with the effort that many of the personnel responsible for overseeing MEADS had a conflict of interest. Specifically, they had longstanding ties to the existing Patriot air defense system that MEADS would replace. As Hammond puts it, “Patriot employees generally saw MEADS as a threat and never embraced their role to help make the program successful.”
Hammond’s conclusion is that management of new weapons should never be placed in the same organizational structure where the legacy systems they will replace are located because employees will have an inherent conflict of interest that guarantees failure of the new program. He raises a number of other issues about the management of cooperative development programs within NATO and where responsibility for air and missile defenses should be vested within the defense establishment, but the identification of an organizational conflict of interest that impaired MEADS is his most important finding.
The MEADS program should not have been killed. It was far more versatile, agile and cost-effective than the legacy Patriot. Now we know that part of the reason it didn’t survive was bureaucratic politics having nothing to do with the program’s merits. And we know one other thing: the U.S. Army is woefully unprepared for dealing with the air defense challenges of tomorrow, which will include everything from manned aircraft to ballistic systems to unmanned drones to cruise missiles. If MEADS had been placed in an organizational structure that approached its performance objectively, Army air defenses might be in better shape today.
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