By Andrea Shalal-Esa
WASHINGTON, Nov 6 (Reuters) - The MEADS missile defense system developed by the United States, Italy and Germany intercepted and destroyed two targets simultaneously in a final test on Wednesday before Washington pulls out of the program, Lockheed Martin Corp said.
Lockheed, which plans to keep working on the project with Germany and Italy, said the test showed the Medium Extended Air Defense System (MEADS) can provide 360-degree protection against air and ballistic missile threats.
MEADS was developed by a joint venture of Lockheed and the Italian-German group MBDA. In Wednesday’s test at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, MEADS destroyed two targets launched from opposite directions at the same time: a QF-4 air-breathing drone coming from the south, and a Lance missile that was flying a ballistic missile trajectory from the north.
“No fielded ground-mobile air and missile defense can intercept targets from two directions at the same time, as MEADS did today,” said Gregory Kee, who manages the program for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
He said the system can intercept “multiple targets,” more than the two it destroyed on Wednesday. He could not give the exact number since it was classified.
“MEADS has eight times the capability of some of the existing systems today,” he added.
The United States, Italy and Germany spent about $3.4 billion to develop MEADS over the past decade as a successor to the Patriot missile defense system. Washington decided last year to withdraw after the development program, citing budget cuts.
Poland is considering joining the program, and sent officials to observe the test conducted jointly by the United States, Germany and Italy, the company said.
Raytheon Co is the prime contractor for the Patriot system, which uses PAC-3 missiles made by Lockheed, and has continued to generate large international orders.
Lockheed says MEADS offers broader protection against missile attacks than the older Patriot system, and is cheaper and easier to transport. Officials also say MEADS is the only system that offers 360-degree coverage.
Raytheon officials say the Patriot system, which first entered the U.S. Army’s inventory in 1982, has been heavily modernized, with large foreign orders helping fund new digital processors, touch panel screens and portable trainers.
Critics of MEADS say it has not been tested in combat, while the Patriot system has demonstrated it can fire the PAC-3 Missile Segment Enhancement (MSE) missiles developed for MEADS.
The Pentagon put a final $310 million in funding into the MEADS program in fiscal 2013 to pay for the last test and bring the developmental program to a close.
Kee said Wednesday’s test had proven the maturity of the technologies in the MEADS progam and would allow all three countries to use it. He said the program had already demonstrated its ability to integrate with NATO weapons systems, and further demonstrations were planned over the coming year before the development program ends next autumn.
The Pentagon has said it plans to “harvest” technologies from the MEADS system for other missile defense efforts, but details have not been released.
Kee said the U.S. Army concluded in an interim report that the MEADS program had “very mature hardware and software.”
MEADS said Polish officials also observed Wednesday’s test as they move to launch a competition valued at $3 billion to $5 billion in January for a new air and missile defense system.
Marty Coyne, business development director for Lockheed’s air and missile defense business, said MEADS would be a “perfect fit” for Poland since it was looking for significant participation by its own companies, and it wanted 360-degree coverage, which is not offered by any other company.
He said Poland expected to start a formal acquisition process in January, with a contract award likely by the end of 2014. The timing would work well for MEADS, since the development program will just be ending at that point, he said.