Get Patriot Modernization Back on Target | Commentary
The public, after the recent Malaysian Airlines tragedy in Eastern Ukraine and the Iron Dome systems’ protection of Israel, is now keenly aware of the lethality of missiles and the necessity of properly integrating and operating air defense systems. This air and missile defense mission is one of the U.S. Army’s top priorities, so it’s been on target ensuring the Patriot missile system continues to evolve to outpace the threat. Unfortunately, the Senate Appropriations Committee is not yet on board.
After years of political maneuvering on Capitol Hill and hundreds of millions in extra funding, Patriot’s chief competitor, the Medium Extended Air Defense System program, drew its last breath this year. In the end, the conclusion was clear and unequivocal by Washington standards — a poor, non-performing program must simply fade away. Many would languish over its demise or perceived waste of valuable defense dollars while the optimists would look at how the investment spurred competition and technology. Perhaps the reality is somewhere in between, so now it’s time to move forward with Patriot Air and Missile Defense System modernization.
In this year’s budget request, the Pentagon seeks Patriot modernization funds while one of the four key committees, the Senate Appropriations recently decided to significantly cut the budget citing the Army hasn’t clearly defined programmatics or technologies in their requirements (two things not normally in a “requirements document”) or an acquisition strategy that embraces competition. Interestingly, this is the same committee that had no problem pouring hundreds of millions into MEADS these last few years knowing the U.S. would never procure the system.
Today’s Patriot vaguely resembles the systems and missiles fielded in the 1980s. Its capabilities now encompass a significantly larger engagement envelope against ever evolving threat aircraft, cruise missiles and even ballistic missiles. Of course, a complex weapons system is nothing without reliability and training for ease of operations, but those steady improvements dwarf when considering Patriot’s ability to interoperate with the alphabet soup of systems that form the U.S. and Allied Integrated Air Defense System of Systems. The Navy’s AEGIS, the Air Force’s TPS-radars, Allied HAWK, the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense for ballistic missiles, and the JLENS aerostats for persistent look-down protection all tie in with Patriot.
U.S. Patriot forces stand guard around the globe with eleven allied/partner nations, while two new NATO allies consider procurement of the system. Its evolution proves its architecture is open to change and improvement, and its program team delivers when resourced. Most importantly, Patriot is a strategic deterrent that sends a message to our adversaries and assures our partners — which is why more than a third of the U.S. Patriot force is forward deployed today.
Having worked many large single-contractor programs, the defense acquisition community seeks leverage that motivates performance for the full term of a program. The Senate Appropriations Committee is right to be concerned; however, the Army has done an impressive job with Patriot’s acquisition strategy.
Instead of employing an aircraft model, where the system of systems is on board and is supplied by a single mega-contractor, the Army’s Patriot acquisition strategy leveraged foreign sales, multi-year procurement, and component system competitions. In some cases the Patriot elements were competed by the prime contractor (Raytheon) and in other cases were “broken out” and competed by the Army. Congress should note that this last competitive method proved to be particularly well suited to Patriot as reflected in the PAC-3 family of missiles being supplied by Lockheed Martin and in the Integrated Battle Command System being provided by Northrop Grumman.
Mixing major system suppliers can be a challenge, but it can be powerfully effective if the overarching managers are excellent. The Army’s Patriot program team has proved to be a wise investor and effective manager. In concert with the operational community, its vision for Patriot includes continued upgrades to the missile segment, leveraging the latest in digital processors in the radar and weapons control systems, and improvements to the operator stations.
All of these enhance Patriot’s readiness and reliability, mitigate obsolescence, reduce the maintenance and logistic footprint, and improve system performance. Patriot is not standing still and the Army is poised to evolve the system further with new concepts and innovations from industry — including legacy MEADS technology or a real 21st century 360-degree AEGIS-like fixed array radar — that can compete and earn their way onto the battlefield.
The linchpin to success remains funding. Predicable and consistent funding for Patriot modernization is vital to the success of the Army’s strategy for meeting combatant commanders’ needs and executing a program that provides critical capabilities to U.S. and allied forces. Congress should stand resolute in supporting the Army’s program team and fully fund Patriot modernization by restoring the Senate Appropriations cut in the full Senate or in conference.
Retired Air Force Col. Robert Newton is a former test pilot and Pentagon acquisitions officer.