- - Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Watching the Medium Extended Air Defense System (MEADS) squirm through its final days is like sitting through the worst movie you’ve ever seen. You know the outcome, the acting is pitiful, and the only thing on your mind is the longer you sit there, the more money you spend for parking and the baby-sitter. Never mind the sunk cost of the ticket. It’s best to just get up and move on.

Even with bad movies, I usually hang in there in hopes of a worthy plot twist or good special effect. But there is nothing that can be done to salvage the MEADS program. After more than $2 billion in taxpayer funds, innumerable development delays and the sure knowledge that this system will never be built, much less deployed, the ending is inevitable and will be bad. In spite of all this, Pentagon planners want this drama to continue for yet another year with taxpayers shelling out an additional $400 million, even though Congress made it clear the program must end by October.

In defending the latest MEADS budget request, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense David Ahern describes great leaps in systems design and development to fielded capability. He claims that all we need do is complete a MEADS Proof of Concept in 2014, and with just a few billion dollars more, we can protect our troops from air threats, neglecting to mention that our troops have the best air-threat protection on earth.

The reality is, there isn’t a large pot of money for completing development and procuring the MEADS system. The program to date has not performed, is over budget and is years behind schedule, yet taxpayers are now expected to believe that everything has turned around and the Army can come up with the money to complete development and produce the systems. Mr. Ahern and others want to focus on just proving the concept, but that goal is far shy of the production-ready, mission-effective and operationally suitable system we need.

Defense writer Loren Thompson brought up a good point regarding the value of harvesting MEADS technology in his April 20 Lexington Institute article, “Army Plans Leave Soldiers Vulnerable to Air Threats.” While I know the Air Force takes great pride in the fact that it has been almost 50 years since U.S. ground forces have been threatened by enemy air, I agree that the Army should leverage any worthy technology that has so far emerged from MEADS.

The question is how. Dumping hundreds of millions of additional taxpayer dollars into a poorly performing program that will never materialize is absurd. But harvesting technology, while historically challenging, is doable, so we should take the $400 million requested for more MEADS funding and apply it to fully modernize the Patriot missile system, which is performing, serves NATO and a wide range of allies, and continues to evolve while providing needed air defense.

Rather than pouring good money after bad into MEADS, we could actually get some fieldable capabilities for our troops and allies. By necessity, Patriot and MEADS already leverage the missile segment with the Patriot Advanced Capability-3 effort, and they have had to address the mixed command-and-control aspects of operating together. Now would be an ideal time to shift funding to Patriot and direct engineers to cherry-pick technologies that deserve incorporation into the air-defense network.

This approach would also put the Pentagon in compliance with the demand from Congress that the curtain fall on MEADS this year.

In a very direct letter to Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican and ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, flags the fact the Defense Department chose to ignore the law. Mr. McCain highlighted that the Army did not restructure MEADS to close out or terminate the program with the remaining funds in the current budget, as directed. With the Pentagon opting for an expensive MEADS sequel, we can only hope Congress will bring this bad movie to its finale this summer.

Robert Newton is a retired Air Force colonel and former Pentagon acquisitions officer.