Air Defense: Affordable Trumps Better


December 13, 2015: In late 2015 the Netherlands decided against buying the European (MBDA) made MEADS (Medium Extended Air Defense System) to replace its aging Patriot systems. The Dutch concluded that the additional expense of buying new MEADS systems to replace Patriot was not worth it. Instead existing Patriot systems will be upgraded as often as necessary to keep them going until 2040.

MEADS does have some admirers. In mid-2015 Germany decided to buy the MEADS for short range (under 50 kilometers) aircraft and missile defense. The other option was to upgrade their Patriot systems and buy more Patriot systems. This is what the United States has already done. The U.S. Army was originally a developer and customer for MEADS but withdrew in 2013. The Americans left despite the high cancellation penalties incurred. Work on MEADS began in the late 1990s but is suffered numerous delays and did not conduct its first flight tests until 2011. It was supposed to enter service in 2014, but technical problems kept delaying that. Now it looks like 2016 is most likely.

Despite all the problems the Germans managed to carry out a remarkable turnaround for MEADS. Back in 2002 this multinational effort to replace the Patriot air defense system had reached a crises, with cost overruns and technical difficulties threatening to scuttle MEADS. The project began as a joint effort by Germany (paying for 25 percent of development), Italy (17 percent) and the United States (58 percent.) France was also once a partner, but withdrew as the problems mounted. The U.S. government tried to remain with the program to avoid offending Germany and Italy but the costs and delays became impossible to defend before Congress.

MEADS was designed to use the existing Patriot PAC-3 anti-missile missile (range of 20 kilometers) against missiles and aircraft, and the long range IRIS-T SL air-to-air missile (range of 40 kilometers) for attacking aircraft and some missiles. This version of IRIS-T is modified for ground launch and longer range. MEADS is mobile, carried around in five ton trucks.

As completed MEADS is able to set up and be ready for action faster than Patriot. The vehicles used to transport MEADS are somewhat more mobile. The electronics are superior in some ways to Patriot. For example the radar provides 360 degree coverage. MEADS was designed to more easily integrate with other air and missile defense systems. If MEADS does well in its final testing and the price is competitive with Patriot, there will potential export sales and stiff competition for Patriot. If MEADS works as advertising Patriot will be under pressure to develop equivalent or better capabilities. MBDA fears that other potential MEADS customers will, if they have Patriot, use the same logic as the Dutch and Americans and stick with upgraded Patriot rather than the new MEADS.




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