U.S. reviewing missile program with Germany, Italy
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A prime multibillion-dollar example of U.S.-German-Italian cooperation for the battlefield of the future is facing an uncertain future.
Armament directors from the three countries were to discuss the status of the Medium Extended Air Defense System, or MEADS, in Brussels this week among other things, even as overarching missile-defense issues loom larger on NATO's agenda.
"We have to look at our portfolio for air defense and see where there's overlap, where there's duplication," Malcolm O'Neill, the U.S. Army's top arms buyer, said in an interview on Wednesday.
Ashton Carter, the U.S. Defense Department's top weapons buyer, was to confer with his German and Italian counterparts on the sidelines of a NATO conference of national armaments directors, O'Neill said. The NATO session takes place on Thursday and may spill into Friday.
O'Neill said the U.S. Army was "coming up against affordability issues" as it weighs the future of programs such as MEADS, which is designed to replace Patriot systems in the United States and Nike Hercules systems in Italy.
A total of 15 nations are using Patriot systems, built by Raytheon Co and Lockheed Martin Corp. O'Neill contrasted that number with the three nations building MEADS.
A U.S. decision on funding MEADS versus possible Patriot program upgrades likely would take another six months, O'Neill said. He doubted it would be in time to affect the fiscal 2012 budget that President Barack Obama plans to send to Congress on February 7.
The current Army review is part of a broad, year-long look at its capabilities that began last February.
"We have to be very careful about what we eliminate before we make a decision to eliminate it," O'Neill said, adding he had not yet discussed MEADS' fate with his counterparts from Germany and Italy. Representatives of Italian and German armed forces did not respond to requests for comment.
MEADS' funding comes 58 percent from the United States, 25 percent from Germany and 17 percent from Italy. Lockheed Martin has been developing with Lenflugkorpersysteme in Germany and MBDA-Italia. The current design and development contract is valued at $3.4 billion.
Michael Hammer, a spokesman for the White House's National Security Council, said the U.S. Defense Department overall was in the process of reviewing MEADS.
"This includes consulting with our MEADS international partners about the appropriate way ahead," he said in an emailed reply.
Hammer added the administration of President Barack Obama remained committed to fielding effective missile defenses against perceived threats.
The United States has been urging its NATO allies to join in a layered NATO-wide shield prompted largely by concerns about Iran's nuclear fuel and missile programs.
The 28-country NATO alliance is due to decide at a November 19-20 summit in Lisbon whether to make missile defense a formal part of its mission. If so, European countries could plug existing battlefield missile defenses into the wider shield the Obama administration is building with systems on land and sea and sensors in space.
Riki Ellison, a prominent missile-defense advocate with ties to senior officials in the United States and Europe, said the Obama administration's appeared loath to risk a possible breach with Germany and Italy at a time it is seeking NATO unity on missile defense.
"That alone will force the U.S. Defense Department to go on funding MEADS, at least for now," said Ellison, who heads the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance.
The equation heading into the Lisbon meeting is also complicated by Russian opposition to any NATO-wide missile defense system that excludes Moscow. Another stumbling block is Turkey's qualms about joining a U.S.-led plan that cuts across the grain of its recent wooing of Iran.
(Editing by Andre Grenon)
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