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Mark Pfeifle Headshot

An Unguided Missile to Nowhere

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For four years now, Congressional appropriators, the White House and the Pentagon have been locked in an on-again, off-again battle over funding for the Medium Extended Air Defense System (MEADS), a boondoggle that is already at least 10 years behind schedule, $2 billion over budget and that the Pentagon doesn't want. It's time to end the insanity and scrap the MEADS program -- permanently.

MEADS had its inception in 1995 as a joint project by Germany, Italy and the United States, but in the nearly two decades since, both Germany and Italy have disaffirmed faith in the system.

MEADS was originally conceived as a possible replacement for the famous Patriot missile system, which the U.S. and nations around the world, including in Europe, have relied upon for decades. Unlike MEADS, however, the operational Patriot has undergone constant modifications to keep up with advances in technology; MEADS, by contrast, is very much a "paper" system, one that is primarily theoretical and, worse, that relies on the theories of two decades ago.

MEADS underwent a "proof of concept" demonstration late last year, but the circumstances were such that the process could not fairly be called a "test." There were no other aerial targets in the area to confuse the system; there were no counter-measures employed, such as jamming. In the parlance any student could understand, this was an open-book, take-home test.

By contrast, the system MEADS was designed to replace, Patriot, has successfully undergone more than 2,500 "search-and-track" tests. More than 150 missiles have been flight-tested, and the newest iterations of the system have already passed the stringent test regimes imposed by the Army's Test and Evaluation Command.

Almost since its inception, the MEADS system has been riddled with delays and cost overruns that have led Pentagon planners to question its utility.

By 2010, just 15 years after MEADS was conceived, an internal Pentagon memorandum recommended its cancellation: "The system will not meet U.S. requirements or address the current and emerging threat without extensive and costly modifications," an Army memo proclaimed.

What happened to MEADS since that memorandum is a case study in how difficult it is to kill any appropriated program, even one that everybody agrees is too expensive, won't be delivered on time -- and won't work even when delivered.

Within months, the Pentagon decided not to field the MEADS program, and both Germany and Italy announced they would never use it and would abandon MEADS before procurement.

Yet, President Obama's 2012 budget request included $400 million for further development of MEADS, and Senate appropriators -- after both Senate and House Armed Services Committees zeroed out the program -- ultimately restored $380 million of that sum, under pressure from Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.

Since then, funding has been continued for MEADS in two separate Continuing Resolutions, even though the Pentagon doesn't want it and our international partners have walked away.

Missile defense assumed a lower priority when the United States was focused on insurgents who lack missiles, but now with attention increasingly focused on Asia and with the full extent of Russia's territorial desires still unknown, the time has come to reconsider our approach to spending on missile defense designs like MEADS. It is clear that our allies in Asia and Europe need proven systems that can be deployed today, not concepts that are years away from ever seeing the battlefield.

President Obama's most recent budget request does not include MEADS, but the program has well-positioned contractors in many key states and Congressional Districts, and its cronies have many friends on Capitol Hill. They are more than capable of staging yet another "Freddie Krueger Moment" for MEADS.

The latest attempt falls under the banner of so-called "harvesting," whereby the United States would pluck the salvageable parts of MEADS and incorporate them into the Patriot system. An Army report - required by those same congressional supporters -- is due out this spring.

One thing is certain: if Congress and the White House are smart about deficit reduction, they will at long last abandon the missile program nobody wants.