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Another $250 million drink for missile defenses

A problem-plagued program set for cancellation keeps collecting checks

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MEADS Battle Manager

MEADS International

The talk of the defense world is the budget — specifically, how to shrink it and what will be cut, due to Congressional wrangling or the looming “sequestration”. Given the new austerity pressures, it’s noteworthy that a costly program targeted for cancellation by both the administration and the Congress has gotten a new government check for a quarter of a billion dollars — and, if the Pentagon gets its wish, will get another $400 million soon.

But that’s what happened with the Medium Extended Air Defense System (MEADS), a putative replacement for the Patriot missile defense system. It has been plagued with so many cost overruns and delays that DoD and Congress both agreed last year to pull the plug — although conflict remains over the timetable.

The Pentagon decided to keep paying until the program attained a “proof of concept,” a status that falls well short of production and deployment but would in theory allow the U.S. or its foreign partners to restart the project later if they chose. DoD requested a total of $804 million over 2012 and 2013. But Congress disagreed, and agreed to fund only the first year.

Two developments have brought MEADS back into the news. The first was the Pentagon’s contractual payment of another $250 million for the project to finish the first year (hat tip to Tony Capaccio and Roxana Tiron of Bloomberg News for reporting this). In addition, the Pentagon has now asked again for another $400 million to finance the second year of work, setting off renewed objections from lawmakers opposed to pouring more funds into a weapon system unlikely to play a real-life role. The House Armed Services Committee has in fact rejected additional funding for the program, a decision that evoked strong objections from the White House in a statement Tuesday evening.

Pentagon officials have said a key reason for keeping the program going is help project partners Germany and Italy, providing “a meaningful capability” for them and “a possible future option for the U.S.” Since the project began in 1995, the U.S. has contributed 58 percent of the funds, while Germany provided 25 percent and Italy 17 percent. The venture is led by Lockheed Martin, in collaboration with a German firm, LFK-Lenkflugkörpersysteme, and the international MBDA-Systems Inc.

A spokesperson for the Pentagon did not return a request for comment, but Frank Kendall, the acting under secretary for acquisition, defended the costs at a March hearing as “not just a contract” but rather “an agreement with two of our … closest international partners.” The White House statement said cancelling it "would be perceived...as breaking our commitment...and could harm our relationship with our allies on a much broader basis." It also could inhibit the harvesting of technology from the program to use elsewhere, the statement said.

Kendall's argument at the hearing did not hold much water with Senator Mark Begich (D-AK), who acknowledged the importance of good international relations, but asked why “we are paying the tab” for “a system we are not really going to use fully.”

Begich and Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) earlier called for the program to be cancelled before the proof of concept phase has ended. “The Department of Defense has stated that it does not intend to procure MEADS,” the senators wrote in a March letter. “Facing a serious fiscal crisis, we cannot afford to spend a single additional dollar on a weapons system such as MEADS that our warfighters will never use.”

A request for comment from Lockheed, a main MEADS contractor, was not returned. But their homepage contains a number of press releases defending the project, including an editorial from retired Maj. Gen. James Cravens, a former Commandant of the Air Defense Artillery School hired by Lockheed in 2004. He denies a cost overrun and scoffs at the idea that Patriot systems, produced by both Lockheed and rival Raytheon Corporation, are enough to protect troops.

“Today’s threats have outgrown the Patriot missile-defense system — just ask a soldier,” writes Cravens, who says upgrading the Patriot is a bad investment “because of its Cold War architecture and technology limitations.” (There has been speculation that technology developed for the MEADS project could be used to upgrade the Patriot.)

Unlike the Patriot system, widely deployed around the globe by both the U.S. and other countries, MEADS was supposed to be more mobile and be able to target missiles coming from all directions. According to the MEADS contractor website, the new system would cover “eight times” the range of the Patriot missile defense systems, with a focus of targeting low to medium altitude missiles, drones and other airborne vehicles and weapons.

Initially projected to cost $3.4 billion to develop, a 2011 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report put the total cost of procuring the 48 systems at $16.5 billion, almost five times the initial projection. The report said the project was “at risk of not meeting several technical performance measures, including assembly, disassembly, and emplacement times, especially in extreme temperatures.”

The report went on: “Requirements satisfaction, software maturity, and cost growth continue to be concerns” among Pentagon officials. in addition, the vehicles used to move the launchers failed to “meet all NATO road requirements, putting their ability to be deployed in question.” Its problems were not constrained to hardware — “the battle management software is delayed and the multifunction radar still faces hardware challenges,” according to a more recent GAO report.

Critics have also depicted the program, conceived in the wake of the Cold War and the first Gulf War, as unnecessary. Thomas Collina, research director of the Arms Control Association, said a number of short-range missile defense systems are already working, including the Patriot land based systems and SM-3 launchers equipped on sea-faring vessels. “If you’re looking to cut budgets, [MEADS] is an obvious target. ... It’s redundant, over-budget and hasn’t met performance expectations,” Collina said.