The Medium Extended Air Defense System (MEADS) that the U.S. Army has been developing in concert with two allies demonstrated last week why backers believe it is superior to the service’s existing Patriot system. In a proof-of-concept test at the White Sands Missile Range, a MEADS missile was deliberately launched in the wrong direction to intercept an incoming target, and then executed a fast turn to successfully engage and destroy the target. The unusual test proved the capacity of the new system to provide 360-degree protection of ground forces, even when enemies attack from an unexpected direction.
This is an important advance, because the world of well-defined front lines and secure rear areas for which Patriot was developed four decades ago no longer exists. U.S. soldiers now are trained to fight in fluid combat conditions where the location of friendly and hostile forces may change radically from day to day. Thus, air defense systems designed to be pointed in the direction of enemy territory have become outmoded, and the military must be prepared to counter overhead threats no matter where they originate. Iran’s development of cruise missiles that can maneuver to attack U.S. forces from behind is illustrative of the challenge.
The Army’s decision to kill MEADS last year seemed extraordinarily ill-timed, since it unfolded just as the joint force was beginning to transition from a decade-long focus on counter-insurgency warfare to dealing with more traditional state-based threats (like China). Insurgents don’t have air forces and countries do, so air defense is likely to be more important in the future — especially given the proliferation of various unmanned aircraft and other overhead threats. Walking away from a next-generation air defense system that two allies were providing much of the development funding for made little sense, a fact that should be even more obvious now that the new technology is proving itself.
At the very least, the Army should complete its funding commitments to Germany and Italy while trying to get some benefit from the advanced technology it has spent so much money to acquire. The day is rapidly approaching when that technology will be needed to deal with emerging airborne and ballistic threats. And while we’re at it, can we please get a rigorous comparison of the logistical costs associated with operating Patriot versus MEADS? The newer system was supposed to save money over time by being much lighter than Patriot and thus easier to deploy, but like every other facet of the Army’s decision process in this mission area, the facts are hard to find.
Loren B. Thompson, Ph.D.