Tuesday, October 5, 2010

US Army Move to Kill Air Defense System Leaves Other Services and Allies in the Lurch

The Army's effort to trim its modernization portfolio is starting to produce a lot of casualties outside its ranks. Earlier this year the Army decided to kill its "non-line-of-sight" launch system even though development of the program was 90 percent complete, leaving the Navy to go it alone on what was expected to be the main weapon for the sea service's future Littoral Combat Ship. Reduced demand for the launch system means the Navy will need to spend much more money for each weapon, and may ultimately have to abandon it.

Now the Army has found another candidate for termination in its air defense community, and the fallout from that program's cancellation could be more far-reaching. The program is called SLAMRAAM, which stands for "surface launched advanced medium-range air-to-air missile." Basically, it's a truck-mounted version of the same radar-guided air combat missile carried by F-15 and F-22 fighters, designed to defeat airborne threats such as helicopters, unmanned aircraft, attack planes and cruise missiles -- anything that moves slower than a ballistic missile. The Army gave Raytheon a contract in 2004 to integrate the missile with a mobile launcher, radar and fire control unit so that its combat forces could be protected against a wide array of emerging aerial threats.

SLAMRAAM is supposed to fill a gap in air defense capabilities between the short-range Stinger and the long-range Patriot. Stingers are relatively cheap (about $80,000 each), but they have very limited range and don't always work when the weather is bad. Patriots are much more capable, but at $3 million per missile for the latest version, they often cost more than the airborne targets against which they are aimed. That's a problem, because the lower cost of attacking systems might enable an enemy to overwhelm a Patriot battery by simply exhausting its missiles.

In the parlance of military analysts, Patriot has an unfavorable "cost-exchange" ratio in some situations. SLAMRAAM was supposed to provide an air defense system that was much more capable than Stinger and much more affordable than Patriot.

Simple, right? Well, the other services certainly thought so. The Air Force signed an agreement with the Army for the defense of forward air bases on the assumption that something like SLAMRAAM would be available. The Marine Corps signed a similar agreement for the defense of its forward-deployed units. The Army National Guard was expecting to use SLAMRAAM to defend U.S. territory against cruise missile attack -- starting with the Washington, D.C. area, where existing air defense systems have become outdated. Several allies were also planning to buy SLAMRAAM, including Spain, the Netherlands, Canada and Australia.

But now the Army has decided it doesn't need SLAMRAAM, because the cruise missile threat is emerging more slowly than expected, and it is already funding the Patriot which can cope with pretty much any airborne threat that isn't a long-range ballistic missile. The Army's logic may have some validity in today's low-threat, fiscally-constrained environment, but it doesn't make sense over the longer haul.

For starters, it won't save much money because if SLAMRAAM doesn't get fielded the service will have to buy a lot more Patriots at $3 million a pop. And whatever money the Army does save will probably need to be spent finding alternative defensive options for the Air Force, Marines and National Guard.

Prime contractor Raytheon has come up with several ways of making the program more affordable. One is to substitute less costly Sidewinder missiles for some of the radar-guided missiles in the SLAMRAAM system. Another is to leverage foreign sales of the system to minimize Army procurement costs.

So far, the Army isn't responding. But when you look at all the players impacted by an Army termination of SLAMRAAM, you have to wonder whether the full consequences or costs of any such decision have been adequately weighed. This is why Army weapons decisions are reviewed by the Pentagon's acquisition chief and by the Congress -- to assure they make sense not just for the Army, but for all the warfighters with a stake in the outcome.

No comments:

Post a Comment