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Antiquated Army Air Defenses Would Hobble Joint Force In The Pacific

Lexington Institute – Early Warning Blog

Author: Loren B. Thompson, Ph.D.

After a decade of counter-insurgency warfare, the focus of U.S. military planning is returning to state-based threats. Whether President Obama is reelected or not, the joint force will be paying more attention to places like the Western Pacific and less attention to places like Afghanistan. All of the military services will have to change their approach to planning for future conflicts, with the Army facing the biggest challenge due to its decade-long investment in combating unconventional foes.

Army leaders have already figured out that one way in which they might make an important contribution to joint capabilities in the Asia-Pacific region is by providing air and missile defenses. Ground-based defenses against manned and unmanned aircraft are an Army specialty, and the Army has led national missile defense efforts since the Nike-Hercules program was begun in the 1950s. Although sea-based defenses such as the Navy’s Aegis system typically provide greater flexibility, warships can’t be everywhere and some threats are better addressed from land-based locations.

However, the Army shot itself in the foot just as the shift to conventional threats was commencing by dismantling its plans for future air defenses. Having invested billions of dollars with allies in developing next-generation systems that could remedy the deficiencies of its Cold War air defenses, it decided just as those programs were coming to fruition that overhead threats were not a priority. That decision contradicted the findings of its own warfighters in Iraq, who warned as far back as 2003 that cruise missiles made by China and other countries were able to circumvent the aging Patriot air defense system.

Patriot has served the joint force well for decades, but it is based on Cold War technologies that prevent it from providing 360-degree protection at an affordable price. Patriot is also very heavy, requiring considerable time and expense to deploy overseas, or move once it is on the ground. That isn’t surprising, because it was conceived at a time when the Army was mainly concerned with protecting Europe from the Red Army. The designers expected operators to know which direction enemies would attack from, and have little need to move the system over long distances.

Today the Red Army is gone and U.S. forces might have to fight in the Persian Gulf one year, Northeast Asia the next. Unmanned aircraft and other weapons enable enemies to attack U.S. ground forces from any direction. The Army needs a system that is more versatile than Patriot. And it had one, until last year when planners decided to kill the whole effort. The system was called the Medium Extended Air Defense System (MEADS), and allies were picking up much of the tab for developing it.

The official story for why the Army decided to kill MEADS is that it was short of money, but the real reason is that service leaders were still absorbed in thinking about counter-insurgency warfare and didn’t feel especially threatened by overhead threats (the Taliban doesn’t have an air force). However, that is all about to change, because the U.S. strategic focus is shifting to the Pacific, where potential adversaries have everything from supersonic fighters to cruise missiles to ballistic missiles to unmanned drones. No amount of improvement in the Patriot system will make it an adequate response to this rapidly evolving array of threats.

So the Army needs to rethink its decision on MEADS in light of changing joint requirements. The good news is that MEADS will cost much less to operate than Patriot once fielded due to advances in relevant technologies. It is a lighter, more flexible system that is far better suited to rapid deployment across the vast distances of the Pacific. With most of the leaders who made the ill-conceived decision to kill MEADS now retired, it is a good time for the Army to think more seriously about what capabilities it will need to play (and survive) in the Asia-Pacific theater.

Loren B. Thompson, Ph.D.

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