- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 24, 2011

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

In spite of questionable claims of success in a live-fire test, the Medium Extended Air Defense System (MEADS) is at the crossroads of politics and reality. Will Congress continue to pour money into a program that is many years and billions of dollars away from fielding and that neither the U.S. Army nor its international partners want, or will the underwhelming Nov. 17 test at Arizona’s White Sands Missile Range mark the death twitch of an unaffordable program?

More than a decade ago, when I prepared to move to the Pentagon to work in defense acquisition, a mentor of mine said that all program decisions were political. At the time, I found that hard to believe because I was knee-deep in testing and real-world evaluations of weapon systems that were technically founded and very black-and-white in their performance and value. After about six milliseconds at the Pentagon, I started to discover how right my mentor was. How could something that didn’t work or wasn’t a better, more valuable solution continue to soak up funding?

It wasn’t that I or our organization didn’t recognize technical challenges or how to develop complex, “never-been-done-before” systems. It was that we knew the PowerPoint claims of performance and programmatic certainty rarely held up to reality. Developing advanced and often revolutionary military systems fundamentally requires hard work and a performing team with what I like to call temporal focus (a timely iterative cycle) to truly develop mission-relevant capabilities and solve the tough problems posed by reality. Consequently, when contractors or program managers planned for success in all testing, we thought they were either naive or simply reinventing the wheel.

This brings us back to MEADS. The congressional supercommittee’s failure to develop a debt-reduction plan leaves the administration backing into a strategic vision for our military. Meanwhile, the Pentagon is trying to figure out which foot to chop off in looming budget debates while systems like MEADS drain its lifeblood of funding for a purpose no better than allowing us to put technology on the shelf.

MEADS is an aspiring system with an inspiring price tag to go with it. The problem is that it is far from developed or technically mature. We’re hearing praise of a successful test, but a critical look shows that it was merely a fail-safe live-missile launch against a virtual target. How could it miss? There was nothing there. No doubt the test provided some data, but it was hardly a demonstration of a 360-degree missile-defense capability. For all practical purposes, it was a political stunt performed to attempt to resurrect a dying program.

The dream may have been good, but the reality is that MEADS hasn’t hit a target yet and won’t hit one as a coherent system anytime soon. Simulated threats and virtual missile tests simply highlight that MEADS has a very long way to go in development. The Army recognizes the greater defense needs and remembers the long, tough road and impressive evolution of its current missile system, the Patriot. MEADS advocates argue that the Patriot is old and outdated, but its evolution and performance in combat and continued testing against some very tough targets show that it meets the needs of war fighters while providing high value to taxpayers.

The crossroads of politics and reality have merged for MEADS. It is time for Congress to take the path of fiscal reality and military need by killing MEADS once and for all.

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

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