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How to Save Some Defense Dollars

Put MEADS out of its misery.

11:35 AM, Dec 29, 2010 • By GARY SCHMITT
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That said, it still might make sense to stay with MEADS if it offered a significantly advanced capability that fit an expected threat—but it doesn’t.  Somewhat like the Zumwalt-class destroyer, MEADS was conceived in the 1990s to address threats and provide a capability that is no longer front and center for the military. In particular, it was a system designed to be mobile enough to travel with ground forces being inserted into a contested region against forces with advanced air and missile capabilities. With that scenario in mind, having an air defense capability with 360-degree coverage, an intended feature of MEADS, would be great to have. But defending against air-breathing threats that come in from behind our ground forces is not the problem U.S. forces are likely to face anytime soon. U.S. control of the skies will remain preeminent in almost all likely conflict scenarios; and where not—as in the potential case of China—it will be the Navy’s sea-based assets that will have the primary task of dealing with that problem. 

Today, the most serious threat comes from short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, where “point defenses” of bases, critical infrastructure, and population centers are the priority. On this front, it’s not clear that MEADS will provide much, if any, greater capability than enhanced Patriot. Not only does the planned MEADS fire unit employ the same interceptor as a Patriot battery but, arguably, because of continuing modifications, the Patriot will have better interoperability with other U.S. ballistic defense systems, an enhanced ability to discriminate among targets, and a protection “envelope” that reaches a higher altitude than MEADS. In fact, if the planned integrated battle command system the Pentagon is now funding comes on line, Patriot units will be matched up with the Sentinel and SLAMRAAM air-defense system, providing a 360 degree air defense capability as well.

Finally, given the price tag associated with procuring MEADS, there are doubts as to whether Germany or Italy will actually buy their expected allotment of units. And there are even greater doubts whether additional customers can be found outside the three MEADS-participating states. In contrast, Patriot batteries are presently fielded by a dozen countries, many of whom share an interest in continuing to upgrade the system’s performance. In terms of sustaining global partnerships, the Patriot Missile Air Defense System is the better bet.

No doubt it’s difficult to kill a program, such as MEADS, in which so much has already been invested. And Patriot is by no means a perfect fix for every air defense problem. But, when likely threats, relative capabilities and total costs are factored in, continued investment and deployment of enhanced Patriots is almost certainly the better solution than continuing with MEADS.

Gary Schmitt is director of the American Enterprise Institute’s Program on Advanced Strategic Studies.

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