The Army’s air defense portfolio is taking a beating as the service downsizes its modernization plans. We reported on September 30 that Army leaders want to kill a program called SLAMRAAM that was aimed at fielding an air defense system more capable than the short-range Stinger but more affordable than the long-range Patriot. Now rumors are swirling that Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Chiarelli is also targeting the Medium Extended Air Defense System (MEADS) for extinction.
MEADS is a cooperative effort with Germany and Italy to develop a successor to the Patriot and earlier Nike-Hercules air defense systems, but it is falling victim to the same budgetary pressures that have done in other air defense efforts. Al Qaeda and the Taliban don’t have air forces (unless they hijack commercial transports), so the Army wants to shift money from air defense accounts to more pressing needs.
Problem is, just about every other enemy the Army is likely to face over the next few decades will have an air force, not to mention cruise missiles and various ballistic weapons. That makes termination of MEADS look rather myopic, since it will provide much greater coverage than Patriot while requiring less people, less airlift, and less logistical support. The whole idea behind the program was to field a next-generation air defense system that could cover more threats for less money.
The fact that MEADS has much lower life-cycle costs than Patriot makes its termination look short-sighted even from a budgetary perspective. In effect, the Army is saving a small amount of money in the near term while creating a bigger budgetary burden for itself later. It’s true that completing the development program will require significant funds over the next few years, but where else is the Army likely to find a solution to future threats for which allies are willing to foot 42 percent of the bill?
What the service is probably trying to do with its MEADS maneuver is get more money from the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD). OSD dreamed up MEADS in the first place, and the Army has never liked being locked into a tri-nation program that limited its flexibility. But if the service keeps canceling air defense modernization programs, that will incentivize enemies to invest in unmanned aircraft, cruise missiles and other inexpensive ways of circumventing the aging Patriot program.
Having successfully overcome its latest development hurdle — called a “critical design review” — MEADS is nearly ready for flight testing. Germany and Italy have signaled they want to go ahead with the program. It’s hard to believe the Obama Administration will permit the Army to terminate one of the few successful burden-sharing programs that America still has with its NATO allies.
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