Last week, the Senate Appropriations Committee decided to accept the Pentagon’s request for Medium Extended Air Defense System (MEADS) funding, which will allow the system to enter its “Proof of Concept” phase. The committee’s decision came because costs associated with the termination of the program are at least as high as permitting the continuation of the “Proof of Concept” phase. This is a step in the right direction, because it will allow the Army to harvest technologies for the modernization of its Patriot system or to procure MEADS if the threat advances faster than expected.
MEADS is a ground-based missile defense system designed to replace aging arsenals of Hawk and Patriot ballistic missile and air defense systems in the United States and Germany and the Nike Hercules air defense system in Italy. MEADS, however, has capabilities not present in the Patriot system, such as an active electronically scanned array radar critical to dealing with advanced digital radio frequency memory jammers. In addition, the radar offers unique 360-degree coverage, a capability virtually nonexistent in a Patriot system. The United States will not be able to attain the capabilities offered by MEADS with any combination of the current terminal-phase ballistic missile defense system. It is also more easily transportable than the Patriot and would offer additional savings if operationally deployed.
Unfortunately, the United States does not currently have plans to procure and operationally deploy MEADS. In February 2011, the U.S. Department of Defense decided to curtail the funding for the system and not procure it. The “Proof of Concept” phase will end with two flights of the system and will allow Germany or Italy to enter the procurement phase should they so wish. Accordingly, not to procure the system after significant investments in the program would be strategically and fiscally irresponsible. Maintaining the aging and less capable Hawk and Patriot systems and extending their service lives would require significant additional costs.
The MEADS system has been politically significant because Germany, Italy, and the United States cooperate in its development and share the burden of investments. At a time of a growing ballistic missile threat, it is essential for the United States to maintain and eventually deploy this advanced capability. The decision not to deploy the MEADS system might be driven by the White House’s arms control agenda. The Administration, committed to concluding an arms control treaty with Russia to reduce the number of short-range nuclear weapons, might be tempted to use U.S. defense systems against short-range missiles as bargaining chips in negotiations with Russia. Such an agreement would impose limitations on Patriot modernization and MEADS procurement. The United States owes it to its forward-deployed troops and allies to continue to develop and deploy the MEADS system.