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A sure-fire place to cut the US defense budget

The US Department of Defense has said that the air-defense program known as MEADS will never be operational. Yet Defense Secretary Leon Panetta insists that Congress reinsert $400 million in the defense budget for the program. Amazingly, Congress is falling for his line.

By John C. Hulsman / September 21, 2012

US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta addresses cadets at the Engineering Academy of PLA Armored Forces in Beijing Sept. 19. Op-ed contributor John C. Hulsman says: 'Instead of recognizing the blindingly obvious,' and ending the anti-aircraft MEADS program, the US defense secretary argues that allies involved in the joint program will be less willing to work with the US if America pulls the plug. That logic 'no longer passes the laugh test,' he writes.

Larry Downing/AP/pool


Rothenburg, Germany

It is the kind of bizarre Alice-in-Wonderland story that drives average Americans crazy. Confronted with the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, the federal government has insisted on continuing to fund a defense program that will admittedly never be made operational.

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Instead of recognizing the blindingly obvious, and ending this farcical story, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has instead urged the Senate Appropriations Committee to reinsert $400 million in funding for the air-defense program known as MEADS (Medium Extended Air Defense System).

He wants to take advantage of research on the surveillance radar part of the program. He has also insisted that Italy and Germany – America’s partners in creating this white elephant – will view the system’s termination as “reneging on our promises,” explaining that they will be less willing to work on joint projects with the United States in the future.

Indeed, German Defense Minister Thomas de Maizière has threatened that axing the program would have “unintended consequences” regarding the validity and reliability of agreements with the US. But it is apparent to even the most untutored Europe-watcher that American relations with significant powers such as Germany and Italy do not rest on the funding of a single, failing defense program, as Panetta and his colleagues charge.

MEADS was designed to intercept medium-range ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and drones – much as the already operational Patriot Missile system has done successfully since the First Gulf War. Beyond this obvious and wasteful duplication, MEADS has experienced a legion of problems of its own. Since its inception in 1996, it has been routinely off budget and behind schedule.

An original selling point for MEADS is its aspiration to have a 360-degree surveillance capability, as opposed to the Patriot or any previous missile-defense system. But if the Patriot system were equipped with three "multi-functional" radar, it too, would have 360-degree coverage. In other words, MEADS in and of itself offers no new capability.

Finally, given all these drawbacks, the Department of Defense gave up on it in 2011, announcing that it would not field MEADS because it cannot afford it. Yet the White House has continued to press Congress to fund the program design and development through 2013 – even after three House and Senate committees zeroed out funding for this boondoggle.

Incredibly, the defense secretary’s off-base logic about enraged allies worked. In August, the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense recommended that $380 million be restored to the defense budget, and now the Senate Appropriations Committee has agreed to go along.

There is a real irresponsibility in this exaggeration theme. Whatever happens with MEADS, the sky will not fall down on the transatlantic relationship.


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