Today the U.S. military faces a variety of very dangerous threats. They come from all corners of the globe, from hostile nations advancing nuclear programs to rogue non-state actors who have acquired a wide range of deadly weapons.
Congress and Pentagon officials have invested significant time and resources preparing for these threats. The problem, however, is that drastic cuts to the Department of Defense budget may prevent our leaders in Washington, D.C., from delivering the battlefield capabilities that combatant commanders are currently demanding.
This conflict was recently highlighted in an op-ed authored by retired major general Richard Rowe (U.S. Army). In a piece published by The Hill, Rowe argues:
As the Department of Defense designs our Armed Forces for the future, the joint force capabilities must continue to be responsive to our combatant commanders’ requirements. That being said, today — and in the foreseeable future — combatant commanders must consider the threat from aircraft and ballistic missiles. This includes the imperative of protection that can only be provided by Patriot, THAAD [Terminal High Altitude Area Defense], and the SM-3. Meanwhile, across the globe, the challenge of regional air and missile threats continues to grow sharply. It is for that precise reason that we must prioritize the capability to meet these threats.
It is a challenge I often hear from both current and retired military leaders. While protecting the U.S. homeland from long-range-missile attacks is the hot topic on Capitol Hill, combatant commanders need greater theater missile defense in the Middle East, the Pacific, and elsewhere.
That is what makes the debate over ongoing Patriot-missile-system modernization — an issue I have written about previously — so compelling.
In 2011, the Pentagon announced that it was abandoning plans to field a new system called MEADS, or the Medium Extended Air Defense System, in favor of upgrading Patriot. Because significant cost overruns and technical shortcomings had put MEADS ten years behind schedule, the Pentagon declared:
Due to the substantial delays in the development of MEADS, the U.S. Army would not be able to purchase MEADS to replace Patriot as early as originally planned. Consequently, the costs of completing MEADS development and procuring MEADS to eventually replace Patriot would also require a significant concurrent investment in Patriot sustainment and modernization over the next two decades. Together, these costs are unaffordable in the current DoD budget environment.
The message was pretty clear: We can’t afford to throw good money after bad. We must invest in a system we know and trust. That system was and is Patriot. After all, during Operation Iraqi Freedom it went a perfect 9-for-9 in intercepting Iraqi missiles, and it was quickly deployed to the front lines in Turkey when Syria descended into turmoil.
A couple of considerations made this decision to stick with Patriot a no-brainer for the Army. First, Patriot has undergone continued investment, testing, and modernization since it made headlines in the first Gulf War. In 2012, the Army rolled out its brand-new, redesigned, and built-from-the-ground-up Patriot system. The system upgrades include improved operational capabilities and significantly reduced operating cost. And Patriot is fully integrated and tested with the next-generation PAC-3 MSE interceptor.
Second, these modernization costs are being shared by a number of allies who have bought the Patriot missile system. A total of twelve nations now have Patriot as the cornerstone of their air- and missile-defense architectures, and this foreign-partner investment helps keep costs low for our military and the U.S. taxpayer. As Rowe points out:
Nearly a dozen partner nations have followed our path and fielded the Patriot system to meet their theater air and missile defense requirements. These partners have sought and agreed to modernization as well as critically needed common operating standards to protect our coalition forces.
What continues to cause some alarm, however, is that the Pentagon has yet to fully commit funding to a full Patriot-modernization plan that would allow the missile system to keep pace with emerging threats over the next several decades. Until this year, the Department of Defense kept spending precious resources on MEADS, even though the system would never be used by U.S. troops.
Upgrading defense systems is not a one-and-done proposition. Even with proven systems, our military must continually plan for the next generation of threats as our enemies acquire more and more sophisticated weapons.
If we are to give our combatant commanders what they need to protect our war fighters, assets, and allies, Congress and the Pentagon must make theater missile defense priority No. 1. That means ongoing modernization of the combat-proven Patriot, as well as a more robust inventory of Patriot and THAAD batteries.
Without this commitment, the U.S. military may fall victim to what Baker Spring of the Heritage Foundation in 2011 called the “unacceptable squeeze on defense modernization”:
The implications of the coming squeeze on defense modernization under the existing spending caps should cause great alarm for all concerned, particularly since it comes on the heels of the “procurement holiday” of the 1990s. The result will be a military that lacks the modern weapons and equipment it needs, loses its technological edge over future enemies, and finds itself dependent on a seriously eroded defense industrial base.
Congress and the Pentagon owe it to our troops to ensure that this is one prediction that never comes true.
— Colonel John Venable (USAF, Ret.) led a group composed of 1,100 personnel and $5 billion in aircraft assets flying combat missions for a year in Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom. He also served as commander and demonstration leader of the USAF Thunderbirds.