You don’t need a crystal ball to figure out what the next big threat to America’s soldiers will be. It won’t be improvised explosive devices or cyber attacks, because the Army is spending lots of money preparing for those challenges. The next big threat will come from the air. Why? Because after ten years of fighting enemies with no air forces, the Army has grown so oblivious to overhead threats that it has dismantled its plans for replacing Cold War air defenses. So of course, that’s the weakness future enemies will seek to exploit (which is why the phrase “asymmetric aggression” was invented).
Army planners were warning a decade ago that this would happen, and now unmanned aircraft and short-range ballistic missiles are beginning to pop up just about anyplace the service might deploy in the future. Shifting the focus of national strategy from the Persian Gulf to the Western Pacific won’t alleviate this problem, it will make it worse. China is rich enough and North Korea is crazy enough to mount air assaults against U.S. ground forces far worse than anything the Iranians can even imagine. And the U.S. Air Force will be at a disadvantage defending friendly ground forces in the Western Pacific, given the long distances, thin basing structure, and leisurely pace at which survivable fighters are being introduced into the fleet (it was supposed to have 1,600 stealthy F-35 fighters by 2017, but now it looks likely to have less than 400).
The Army’s main ground-based air defense system, Patriot, has served it well, but doesn’t look capable of coping with emerging air threats in the absence of major upgrades. For starters, it lacks the ability to provide a 360-degree defense of threatened troops, it takes a long time to deploy, and it relies on obsolete software called Jovial (the same 1980s-era code used on the B-2 bomber). So killing just about every item in the Army’s next-generation air defense plan has put future warfighters in quite a bind at a time when emerging adversaries are likely to have cruise missiles, unmanned aircraft, tactical ballistic missiles, and other weapons with which to attack troops from above. Despite competing priorities and the looming specter of budget sequestration, Army leaders need to find some fix for their lagging air defenses.
It seems like the simplest way to deal with this problem is to leverage next-generation technology the Pentagon has already paid for in the canceled Medium Extended Air Defense System (MEADS). MEADS was developed by the U.S., Germany and Italy to replace Patriot, and fell out of favor mainly because threats didn’t materialize at the rate planners expected. But if MEADS technology is simply discarded the way technology for Comanche, Crusader and the Future Combat System were, that will give future aggressors an incentive to focus their efforts on the Army’s weak air defenses. Most of what’s deficient in Patriot — the coverage of the radars, the mobility of the launchers, etc. — was addressed by MEADS. Just because the Army no longer plans to buy the full-up system doesn’t mean it can’t harvest the technology.
For some reason, lawmakers who rail against future weapons spending they believe is unnecessary don’t utter a peep when money that has already been spent is squandered. In the case of MEADS, the U.S. share of sunk money will total $2.4 billion by the time the program goes belly-up at the end of fiscal 2013. Instead of just walking away from all the technology those expenditures have purchased, it would make more sense to adapt what has been bought to dealing with threats we know are coming. If we don’t, the threats are likely to show up much sooner.
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