By Jonathan Bydlak, president, Coalition to Reduce Spending
A certain cautiousness overtakes many political observers upon hearing the word “bipartisanship.” Agreements between Republicans and Democrats too often mean more spending and debt, leaving taxpayers to foot the bill. That’s why it was a pleasant surprise earlier this month when both parties came to a consensus on an initiative that would actually reduce spending — through the elimination of the Medium Extended Air Defense System (MEADS).
MEADS, for readers unfamiliar, is an international missile development program that is intended to replace older missile systems in America and Europe. The United States contributes most of the program’s funding (58 percent), along with Germany (25 percent) and Italy (17 percent). In March 2010, the Army acknowledged that MEADS lacked practical utility and requested to end the program. But despite this recommendation and the congressional consensus, President Obama recently requested an extra $400 million in funding for 2013, just a year after promising Air Force grads in 2012 that the military would have to be leaner.
While MEADS ostensibly serves a useful function, it has many problems that have put it on track for elimination. Annual cost overruns are common and production is slow; despite beginning in 1995, the program hasn’t made it past the design and development stage. It currently lags ten years behind schedule with some $2 billion spent on development and $16.5 billion in remaining procurement costs. All of this has led both the United States and Germany to believe that MEADS will not go beyond development, which prompted the Army’s recommendation to scrap the program.
In addition to the Army, numerous military analysts, former Pentagon staffers, Congressmen, and the Congressional Budget Office have recommended terminating MEADS and refocusing the Army on upgrading the Patriot missile system. Most recently, U.S Senators Mark Begich (D-Alaska) and Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) have led a bipartisan effort to stop funding MEADS, arguing that the United States’s current fiscal situation means we cannot afford to spend extra dollars on a program we will never use.
Abolishing MEADS, however, has been continuously rebuked by the Pentagon. Officials maintain that despite the program’s perceived faults, our international agreement with Germany and Italy demands that development continue. Punitive fees on the order of $550 million to $1 billion could result from the U.S.’s withdrawal, canceling out the immediate savings from ending MEADS. Early termination, it is argued, also could prevent Germany and Italy from obtaining the technology needed to upgrade their missile capability.
However, this defense of MEADS rests on shaky ground. Germany’s defense minister acknowledged in 2010 that Germany only wants to continue MEADS through the development phase and does not expect any deployable product. Likewise, Italy’s economic distress makes it hard to imagine they possess an intense desire for a defense program they can’t afford. Meanwhile, the Council for Citizens Against Government Waste discovered a report the Pentagon sent to Congress stating that the U.S. could withdraw from the international contract “without committing additional money or paying termination fees.”
Like many government programs, MEADS is a classic example of how difficult it can be to cut spending once funding is appropriated and interest groups dig in their heels to defend pet projects. MEADS proponents and opponents alike acknowledge that the program is unlikely to result in anything more than ambiguous R&D benefits, raising the question of how long the U.S. can continue to bear the costs of these missiles to nowhere.
Bydlak is the president of the Coalition to Reduce Spending.