Opinion

Now is no time for the U.S. to be a missile defense paper tiger

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Opinion,Op-Eds,Germany,National Security,Missile Defense,Vladimir Putin,Poland,Italy,Ukraine,NATO

There is little doubt that the western alliance itself has been gravely shaken by the crisis in Ukraine.

Those of us who spend our time worrying about it can only find some of the practical actions taken by the administration alarming in terms of bolstering suddenly hard-pressed allies, such as Poland.

For even before the threat from Russia's Vladimir Putin became manifest, Warsaw embarked upon construction of Polish Shield, a $43 billion project to provide the country with holistic aerial defense.

The centerpiece of Polish Shield is mobile radar and surface-to-air missiles that Warsaw wishes to buy from one of four possible contractors.

Unsurprisingly, the traditional American champion, the Patriot Air Defense System, is one of the finalists. Far more bizarrely, the White House has given Lockheed Martin permission to offer the competing MEADS system (Medium Extended Air Defense System) to Warsaw for Polish Shield as an alternative.

Why am I so withering about MEADS? The simple reason is that I care intensely about the future of the transatlantic alliance.

Offering MEADS to the Poles is a glaring sign of the administration’s unseriousness regarding the present crisis.

MEADS simply is not an option because … it does not exist. Let me repeat that in another way; a major reason the Patriot system is America’s traditional Missile Defense system is because ... it does exist.

MEADS has been killed by every government that funded it to begin with; it is no longer a viable missile defense option, nor will it be in the future.

Only a few MEADS supporters on either side of the Atlantic remain. But one, the Lexington Institute's Loren Thompson (a paid Lockheed Martin consultant), makes the baseless assertion that "Germany and Italy may go ahead with production [of MEADS]even if America does not."

Frankly, this view truly comes from another planet. On March 11, Germany reaffirmed it will not procure MEADS to meet its future air and missile defense needs.

For its part, as long ago as February 2011, the U.S. Department of Defense decided to pull the plug on MEADS, as it was unaffordable and would not meet the Army's requirements.

The third MEADS research partner, Italy, remains an economic basket case. It has just finished suffering through nine consecutive quarters of recession, and has (as of February 2014) a youth unemployment rate of 42.9 percent and an unimaginable public debt level of over 130 percent of GDP.

To put it mildly, this is not a place open to new, risky, open-ended, defense spending. Is Poland then to fund the entirety of the MEADS program itself, taking the place of the three original MEADS benefactors?

Hardly. As such, in terms of basic logic, MEADS is simply not an option.

More damningly geo-strategically, while MEADS is a paper system — never having been deployed in the real world now and certain not to be deployed in the future — the threats emanating from Putin are real.

Encouraging the adoption of a system that does not exist is unlikely to either reassure the doughty Poles or make Putin quake in his boots.

Finally, the Patriot system is not the lemon that Thompson and MEADS contractors make it out to be. To use an automotive analogy, Patriot is not a Model-T, though MEADS has proven to be an Edsel.

The Patriot is already the backbone of five NATO countries' air and missile defense architectures. It remains the U.S. Army's missile defense program of record, with $280 million being allocated to it in the president's proposed budget of 2015 (not a dime is allocated for MEADS).

According to the U.S. Army, the Patriot system is fully capable of being around until at least 2048, proving itself to have had both a real world past as well as a future.

The reason for this is that the system is continuously tested and updated, having undergone 2,500 search track tests and more than 1,000 missile flight tests, with its latest software release leveraging in major modernization improvements.

Given the very serious stakes for the continued future of the transatlantic alliance, now is not the time to lose our basic grasp of logic.

It is far better for the U.S. to back a horse that exists than one that does not and will not. Better still, in doing so, we are backing a proven winner.

Such a sign of resolve will not be missed by the Kremlin at a time when signaling intentions to Moscow has become more important than it has been in a generation.

Dr. John C. Hulsman is president and co-founder of John C. Hulsman Enterprises (www.john-hulsman.com), based in Germany. He is also senior columnist for City AM in London and a lifetime member of the Council on Foreign Relations. The views expressed here are entirely his own.
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