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The NATO partner nations behind the Medium Extended Air Defence System are close to approving full-scale development. But when should MEADS enter service?

With the post-Cold War boom in international peacekeeping and expeditionary warfare showing little sign of abating, NATO's collective need to protect its deployed forces against airborne attack remains a critical area of concern for its expanding number of member states. For three of the alliance's leading members - Germany, Italy and the USA - this requirement will be served through a collaborative venture to replace their existing surface-to-air missiles with the next-generation Medium Extended Air Defence System (MEADS).

An industry consortium charged with creating the framework for the MEADS infrastructure recently demonstrated a number of its key operational elements, bringing to a close a more than three-year risk-reduction effort costing $257 million. Rather than proceeding directly into a design and development phase valued at a further $2.8-3 billion, however, the project has become bogged down as its partners seek to resolve issues such as varying budgetary commitments, the transfer of sensitive radar and missile technologies and differing target dates for the system to enter frontline use.

New capability

The NATO MEADS Management Agency (NAMEADSMA) selected the MEADS International joint venture in 1999 to pursue the development of a new weapon to replace three ageing alliance air-defence systems. These are the Patriot low- to high-altitude system now in use with Germany and the USA, plus the older Hawk and Nike Hercules missiles operated by Germany and Italy.

Conducted under a trilateral banner, with industry workshare to mirror national contributions, the project is funded 55% by the USA, 28% by Germany and 17% by Italy. Stakeholders from each partner country combined to form MEADS International, which comprises Lockheed Martin; EADS, EADS-LFK; and MBDA Italy.

Reflecting the traditional roles of earlier air defence systems, the new design was seen as a means of protecting deployed forces against attack by cruise and tactical ballistic missiles, strike aircraft and unmanned air vehicles. But while coalition campaigns of the last five years in Afghanistan, Iraq and the former Yugoslavia have involved little or no hostile air activity, the growth in use of asymmetric warfare tactics by terrorist organisations such as Al Qaeda has also seen homeland defence emerge as a new area of focus for the partners, and especially the USA.

Key requirement

The availability of an integrated air defence system with a lighter deployment and logistics footprint than weapons currently fielded is also a key requirement, a fact long recognised under the MEADS project. The need for rapid deployment was graphically illustrated during last year's US-led war against Iraq, when equipment needed for some Patriot batteries was still being shipped to the region as the conflict started - despite the months of political build-up to hostilities.

NATO requirements for MEADS call for the delivery of a mobile system suitable for airlift by tactical transport aircraft, such as the Lockheed Martin C-130J now in Italian and US service, Germany's current Transall C-160 and its future Airbus Military A400M. The latter will enter European service in 2009, with Germany's first of 60 A400Ms to be delivered in 2010.

Major elements of the MEADS design include a battle management, command, control, communications, computers and intelligence/tactical operations centre; multi-function fire-control and surveillance radars; a lightweight launcher with multiple Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) missiles; and a missile reloading vehicle. Each MEADS battery will typically deploy with a surveillance radar, a fire-control radar, control elements and three missile launchers.

A key MEADS technology is its active electronically scanned array (AESA) radars, which will provide enhanced detection capabilities while producing fewer false alarms and requiring less maintenance.

Improved tracking

Other benefits of AESA technology include high beam agility, simultaneous operating modes and surface-to-air datalink modules, says EADS, which hopes to manufacture the fire-control radar for European operators. Lockheed Martin Missiles & Fire Control of the USA will provide the surveillance radar. Both systems will rotate to provide full 360¡ coverage and will have an adaptive electronic beam-forming capability to improve tracking accuracy and protection against jamming, for example by using a narrow "pencil" beam.

Unlike the current class of mechanically scanned radars, the AESA sensors will have no moving parts, being formed of about 10,000 individual transmit/receive modules.

EADS also hopes to provide the datalink for the system's ground control element and for the PAC-3 hit-to-kill missiles, says Michael Lörcher, head of transmit/receive module programmes for the company's Defence Electronics business unit.

Successful demonstration

The programme's initial risk-reduction phase officially ended on 6 May, when the industrial partners gave a system demonstration to member nations' defence ministries and NAMEADSMA officials.

Described by the consortium as having fully met the required performance levels, the demonstration included successful operation of the fire-control radar, command centre, lightweight launcher and PAC-3 missile. Conducted at Italy's Pratica di Mare airbase near Rome, the demonstration used prototype hardware and software and a prototype of the eventual MEADS battle management suite.

During the trial, the system acquired and tracked multiple live targets, including a simulated tactical ballistic-missile threat, before conducting a simulated engagement of the hostile threats using PAC-3 missiles. This was achieved despite the presence of a large number of tracks, including friendly aircraft and background clutter.

The lightweight PAC-3 launcher vehicle was also loaded on to a C-130J transport during the demonstration, underlining the advances in reducing the infrastructure required to deploy the future system.

Risk-reduction work for the MEADS package was launched under a $216 million contract in 2001, and earlier this year was the subject of a supplemental seven-month award worth $41 million. The extension was added to cover the period needed for the partner nations to thrash out their updated requirements for design and development, and to resolve any outstanding differences on issues such as technology transfer.

Another topic of discussion has been a possible compromise deal between the programme's European partners and lead stakeholder the US Army, which earlier this year announced plans to slip the availability of MEADS by up to four years until 2016. The US Army would instead like to field some system capabilities with its existing Patriot PAC-3 batteries until the MEADS replacement system is fully mature, but Germany and Italy can ill afford this delay, given the age of their current systems.

A compromise setting a revised in-service date of 2014 now seems a possible outcome for the dispute.

Critical capability

Speaking at the ILA 2004 air show in Berlin last month, Scott Harris, Lockheed Martin's president for continental Europe, underlined MEADS's status as "a critical capability for deploying forces" in future operations. An agreement to proceed with the design and development of the German/Italian/US system is expected to be concluded soon, he says, enabling the industry partners to move into the next, seven-year phase from the third quarter of this year.

CRAIG HOYLE / LONDON