By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 9, 2010; A04
Another battle is brewing at the Pentagon over a costly weapons program that many military leaders do not want but that so far has proven difficult to kill.
After several failed attempts, the Army is trying again to cancel a $19 billion missile defense system that the United States is developing in partnership with Italy and Germany. Known as the Medium Extended Air Defense System, or MEADS, it has been in the works for more than a decade and is designed to replace, in part, the Army's aging Patriot system.
But the Army says MEADS has become too expensive, is taking too long to produce and is difficult to manage because any changes in the program require German and Italian approval. "The system will not meet U.S. requirements or address the current and emerging threat without extensive and costly modifications," an internal Army staff memo concluded last month in recommending the cancellation of MEADS.
Despite the Army's concerns, however, the Pentagon is pushing ahead with MEADS and has requested $467 million from Congress to develop the system next year. Officials said a primary reason for sticking with the project is that it would be too expensive to stop. If the Defense Department were to cancel the system now, it would be required to pay $550 million to $1 billion in penalties to the contractors, an international consortium led by Lockheed Martin of Bethesda.
MEADS, which is scheduled to be delivered in 2018, is designed to intercept short-range and cruise missiles as well as shoot down planes and drones. Unlike the Patriot, the MEADS system is mobile and can be trucked around a battlefield, with its radar swiveling 360 degrees to track targets from any direction.
So far, the weapons system has escaped a drive by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates to curtail or eliminate conventional weapons programs that have been plagued by delays and soaring expenses, such as his decision last year to kill the F-22 fighter jet program.
Defense experts said cancellation could undercut the Pentagon's relations with Germany and Italy, which need to replace their own aging missile defense systems. Under a 2004 deal, the United States covers 58 percent of the development costs, with Germany covering 25 percent and Italy 17 percent.
The weapons system was designed to save money over the long run by spreading expenses among the NATO allies, said Baker Spring, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation. Although the involvement of three countries has added a layer of complexity to the project, he said it was worth it to build a system that all the partners could use interchangeably on the battlefield.
"It's almost inconceivable to me that the U.S. military would be in an expeditionary operation where it won't be working with coalition partners in some form or another," Spring said.
The Army is scheduled to decide this week whether it will continue to oversee the development of MEADS or hand over responsibility to the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency. An Army spokesman declined to comment on those deliberations but denied that the service had made a final decision to try to kill MEADS.
"Right now, there is no decision to cancel that program," said the spokesman, Lt. Col. Jimmie E. Cummings Jr.
Lockheed Martin, which is developing MEADS along with contractors from Germany and Italy, noted that the Defense Department conducted an independent review of the missile-defense system last year and concluded that the program should proceed. German and Italian officials concurred in October after meeting with Pentagon officials.
"At a time of growing threats, MEADS represents the United States' first all-new air and missile defense system of its kind in decades and is the only such program in which allies are sharing the cost to develop a capability that each country needs," Lockheed Martin said in a statement.
John J. Young Jr., who served as undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics until April 2009, said that MEADS posed a conundrum for the Pentagon: a program that the Army does not want, that is not fully funded and that is growing in cost but a program for which the United States has international obligations to proceed.
He said defense officials didn't want to force MEADS on the Army, but they didn't have an easy way out. U.S. officials do not want to pay the termination costs on their own, and they can't get the Germans or Italians to share the burden, he explained, even though neither country has budgeted to continue MEADS past the design stage.
"In the Pentagon, it's pretty tough to make a program go when a service doesn't want to do it," Young said.
The main reason to continue MEADS, Young said, would be to uphold relations with two important NATO allies. But he questioned whether that was enough to override the Army's concerns about the rising expense of MEADS and its limited military usefulness.
"I just think it's a tall order to make the program hang together," he said. "I just don't know if there's a solution set in the middle of all that. Without a plan that all parties support, it is a bad use of taxpayer dollars."