Larry Downing/AP/pool
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.

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.

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.

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.

The German example ought to suffice as proof of this. Europe remains by far the largest source of foreign direct investment for America, with Germany the key economic player on the continent. This seminal reality demands close and continued cooperation with Berlin on everything from investment flows to trade. Likewise, Germany is a key member of the group of great powers endeavoring to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

Both of these important issue streams will continue exactly as before irrespective of MEADS. To think otherwise is simply to head through the looking glass. 

Also, America’s allies have other concerns. Germany is now the undoubted paymaster for Europe, whose fiscal stability is the last, best, chance the continent has to emerge from the euro crisis in one piece. Given this glaring reality, if Berlin is going to spend precious euros on defense, it must be for systems that work.

If this is true for Germany, it holds even more so for Italy. Rome sits very near the debt precipice, and is in the sights of the punishing bond markets. It will serve American and Italian interests if Rome ceases to pay for the foreign-policy equivalent of the “bridge to nowhere.”

America, too, no longer has the luxury of funding MEADS. If Washington is ever to be serious about avoiding the fate of Greece, the time is now. In order to continue to fund our absolutely necessary military, we cannot afford to waste another dime of our treasure.

The way out of this maze is for the United States to properly pay for the modernization of a Patriot Missile system that is operational, has a proven track record, and is already used by 11 other allied nations.

Doing so can bring 60 modernized Patriot fire units online by 2016. Hiding behind hard-pressed allies to continue wasting money no longer passes the laugh test.

It is now up to the full Senate to follow the lead of three other congressional defense panels and put Alice back down the rabbit hole, rejecting the reinsertion of MEADS funding for the coming fiscal year. Both the taxpayer and the US military deserve no less.

Dr. John C. Hulsman is president and co-founder of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, an international relations political-risk consulting firm. He is also the author of all or part of 10 books, including “Ethical Realism,” “The Godfather Doctrine,” and a biography of Lawrence of Arabia, “To Begin the World Over Again.”

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