WASHINGTON -- A plan to spend $380 million this year on a troubled missile defense system is irresponsible, Rep. Bill Shuster of Pennsylvania told Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel during a meeting Thursday of the House Armed Services Committee.
The Medium Extended Air Defense System -- know by its acronym, MEADS -- is a joint project with Italy and Germany to develop antimissile defense technology. The project is over budget, behind schedule and developing equipment that the collaborating countries cannot afford to procure, Mr. Shuster said.
"This, to me, is just foolish -- to be spending almost $400 million on a system that nobody's gonna procure, nobody's gonna buy," the Blair County Republican told the secretary. "The American people, taxpayers, are paying for something that's never going to be deployed."
Mr. Hagel responded that the government is contractually obligated to finish developing the MEADS system. If it doesn't finish the project, contractors could sue, he said. During the secretary's confirmation hearings this winter, he had assured lawmakers that he would stop funding the program.
"What's changed is the appropriations bill that was passed a few weeks ago that put the money back in the budget," Mr. Hagel said Thursday. "I asked legal advice on this, and they had told me that we're obligated to finish that contract."
Mr. Shuster said he believes that those attorneys are wrong. The National Defense Authorization Act explicitly prohibits spending more money on MEADS, and that is the law the Pentagon is obligated to follow, he said. "We write the laws. We govern the Department of Defense. The appropriators are not supposed to cut a check unless we say cut it," he said in a phone interview Thursday evening.
MEADS has been in the works for more than a decade and is designed to replace, in part, the Army's aging Patriot missile defense system.
MEADS, which was scheduled to be ready for delivery in 2018, was intended to intercept short-range and cruise missiles as well as shoot down planes and drones.
Unlike the Patriot, the MEADS system is mobile. Its radar can swivel 360 degrees to track targets from any direction, compared with the Patriot's 90-degree capability.
Under a 2004 deal, the United States agreed to cover 58 percent of development costs, with Germany taking 25 percent and Italy 17 percent. The weapons system was designed to save money over the long run by spreading expenses among the NATO allies.
But the Army said in 2010 that the MEADS project had become too expensive, was taking too long to produce and was difficult to manage because any program changes required German and Italian approval. "The system will not meet U.S. requirements or address the current and emerging threat without extensive and costly modifications," an internal Army staff memo concluded in recommending MEADS cancellation. Then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates tried unsuccessfully to kill the project.
Lockheed Martin, which has a MEADS contract share worth about $2.3 billion, employes 7,300 in its missile unit, according to the George C. Marshall Institute, a Washington conservative think tank.
Raytheon Co., whose Patriot system MEADS would supplant, gave $10,000 to Mr. Shuster in the 2012 election cycle, the Center for Responsive Politics reported.
The Washington Post contributed. Washington Bureau chief Tracie Mauriello: email@example.com, 703-996-9292 or on Twitter @pgPoliTweets.