If the Gravina Island Bridge in Alaska is the “bridge to nowhere” — a symbol of wasteful government spending on an unneeded project — the Pentagon equivalent is the Medium Extended Air Defense System (MEADS).
The Gravina Island Bridge was supposed to cost $398 million to connect the town of Ketchikan (population 8,250) with its airport on the Island of Gravina (population 50) — even though ferry service already connected the two locations. But $398 million is a drop in the bucket compared to the “missile to nowhere.” MEADS’ projected cost is $19 billion.
More than $2 billion already has been spent, and the program is over budget and more than 10 years behind schedule.
The MEADS program began in 1995 as a three-nation, shared-cost program with Italy and Germany to replace the Patriot missile defense system. The claimed advancement to be made by MEADS over Patriot is 360-degree fire control and surveillance radars that are supposed to provide an extended coverage area with fewer units. The system is funded 58 percent by the United States, 25 percent by Germany, and 17 percent by Italy. In theory, an example of defense “burden sharing.”
But promises of improved performance and the benefits of burden sharing are largely meaningless given MEADS’ program history.
In March 2010, after 15 years in development, but not having reached production and deployment, the Army — which would own and operate MEADS — decided that it “would not meet U.S. requirements or address the current and emerging threat without extensive and costly modifications” and recommended that it be canceled.
In February 2011, after deciding that it couldn’t afford to deploy MEADS, the Pentagon strangely decided to continue funding design and development, despite the fact that it would never be produced or fielded. The Department of Defense claimed the United States could not unilaterally withdraw from the MEADS program without incurring termination fees (because of the partnership with Germany and Italy) of nearly $1 billion. But such logic is the very definition of throwing good money after bad.
Yet, that is exactly what we have done. Even as the Pentagon requested $800 million in additional funding for MEADS, it admitted that it was “a program that has had a very troubled history.” Nonetheless, Congress obliged and approved full funding in September 2011 (for fiscal year 2012).
In April 2012, the Pentagon changed its mind about the possibility of having to pay termination costs. Though the House and Senate Armed Services Committees (as well as the House Appropriations Committee) zeroed out the program, eliminating its funding, the Senate provided a $380 million earmark for MEADS for fiscal year 2013.
Beyond the ridiculousness of continuing to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a weapon system that will never be produced or used (Can you imagine a company like Apple engaging in such folly?), the reality is that MEADS is not essential U.S. national security.
The American homeland is not confronted by the kind of threat MEADS is supposed to defeat: shorter-range tactical ballistic missiles.
U.S. forces deployed abroad are, however. But MEADS isn’t needed to protect them. Although more than 20 years old, the Patriot missile has proven itself in combat and can continue to fill that role. Moreover — as our experience in Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrates — the most likely threat to those forces is not missiles, but improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
Defense’s fiscal year 2014 budget request does not include funding for MEADS. But that doesn’t mean that congressional backers of the program won’t try to reinstate it, as they did during the last budget go-around.
Assuming Congress and the president can come to terms on a budget (or continuing resolution), this would be a good time to cut our losses, admit that MEADS has been a costly mistake, and stop needless spending on the missile to nowhere.
Charles V. Pena is a senior fellow with The Independent Institute, 100 Swan Way, Oakland, Calif., 94621 (website: www .independent.org ) and author of “Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.”