Panetta pleads for missile defense dollars

A U.S.-made Patriot missile (Reuters/Richard Chung)
US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta urged lawmakers not to renege on their promises to fund NATO’s new missile defense system, saying such a decision could jeopardize US relations with its European allies.

MEADS (or Medium Extended Air and Missile Defense System) was to act as NATO’s new missile defense shield, designed to replace the Patriot air and missile defenses which form the backbone of the existing system. However, the congress ruled last year that deploying MEADS is impossibly expensive given the budget restraints and economic climate in the US. The funding of the project will stop after the “Proof of Concept” test phase ending in 2013. But even that may run short of cash. Three separate committees have already voted to cut the 400 million dollars from the 2013 US budget needed for the final stage of the project. Now it’s up to the Senate Appropriations Committee to decide on the matter. Panetta urged the Chairman of the Committee Daniel Inouye not to pull the plug on funding. It is the last chance to approve the funding without risking a White House veto on the decision.

MEADS is being jointly developed by the US, Germany, and Italy, with the US footing 58% of the bill. The system has been in development since the beginning of the 1990’s with a cumulative price tag of $4 billion.

However, the US congress has been frustrated by project overruns and high costs, spending money to develop a theoretical missile defense system that they can’t even afford to deploy.

Panetta strongly argued that by funding the project in its last year of the test phase, the US could at least reap the benefits of a 360-degree long-range surveillance radar that would greatly improve missile defense in the future.

In a letter to Senator Inouye, Panetta also stated that failing to fund the final year of the MEADS project would “be viewed by our allies as reneging on our promises.”

“A decision by Congress to prohibit any additional funding for MEADS at this late date would diminish the consensus reached in Chicago,” Panetta said, referring to the agreement to split missile defense costs between Europe and America at the NATO summit in Chicago last May.

“Failure to meet our funding obligations could negatively affect allied willingness to join future cooperative endeavors” and “would likely lead to a dispute with Germany and Italy.”

US Defense undersecretary for acquisition, technology and logistics Frank Kendall wrote separately that pulling out of its contracts with Italian and German developers would force a heavy restructuring of their agreements, and incur termination, research, and defense costs at a later date that would equal more than the 400 million dollars Panetta is asking for.

Furthermore, he hypothesized the move might encourage Italy and Germany to look to non-US solutions for air defense, and undermine what the US calls collective responsibility for European defense.

Leon Panetta echoed that sentiment, stating "The United States relies on allies to share the burden of peacekeeping and defense in coalition activities…In this context, I believe that it is important to live up to our commitments to our allies."

Still, while the panel has recognized the necessity of reaping the technological benefits of completing the program, they still voiced their concerns about “the historical management of the program” and the fact “that it has taken the Department three years to conclude the program was simply unaffordable.”