Tuesday, 25 September 2012

National Research Council Reports Shocking Support Costs for Army Air Defenses

Last week the federal government's prestigious National Research Council released a report on ballistic missile defense that will inform policymaker decisions on funding options. One facet of its findings is already making headlines: the astronomical support costs of the Army's Patriot Advanced Capability Three (PAC-3) system. Patriot is the service's primary surface-to-air missile and radar system for intercepting shorter-range ballistic missiles, and PAC-3 is the latest version.

That's an important defensive capability as potential adversaries from Hezbollah to China to Iran acquire ever-larger arsenals of tactical ballistic missiles. However, the research council's findings indicate that the 20-year cost of keeping the PAC-3 system fielded could approach a quarter trillion dollars. Even grizzled veterans of Cold War weapons debates like me find that price-tag stunningly high. After all, it's only one weapon system, and the calculation doesn't even include the cost of planes needed to airlift PAC-3 to overseas sites or research expenditures required to keep the system operationally relevant.

Here's how the total was arrived at. Each Patriot battalion consists of four missile and radar batteries that individually cost $184-202 million per year to operate and support. Thus, the annual cost of a full battalion is $735-809 million. The Army has 15 such battalions, so the annual cost to operate and support the entire program, both at home and abroad, is $11-12 billion. Multiply those amounts by 20 years of operations, and you get to the staggering total of $220-240 billion. And like I said, that doesn't include the cost of airlift to foreign air zones, which is covered by the Air Force budget, or R&D, which is funded outside the Army's operations and support budget.

These oversized numbers will inevitably lead Congress and Pentagon policymakers to take another look at why the Army canceled a planned successor to Patriot last year. Called the Medium Extended Air Defense System, or MEADS, it would have provided a lighter, more capable system whose development was largely funded by allies. The Army's decision was driven by budget constraints and a belief that overhead threats were emerging more slowly than expected, but little thought seems to have been given to the huge support costs of the current system over the next 20 years.

The Obama Administration's Pentagon team has spent much of the last four years trying to find cheaper ways of meeting U.S. security needs. Army air defenses seem like a place where more study is needed. Why should the Army kill the acquisition of a more capable air and missile defense system when the entire cost can be covered within a few years by retiring its pricey predecessor?

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