By Marina Malenic

A next-generation missile defense program being developed by Italy, Germany and the United States to replace the Patriot and other legacy systems has been given the go-ahead for production of a test system after the countries last month considered and rejected the option of terminating the effort, industry executives said yesterday.

Last month, an independent study group of representatives from all three countries concluded that Medium Extended Air Defense System (MEADS) development should continue, said Mike Trotsky, Lockheed Martin [LMT] vice president for air and missile defense systems.

According to an industry source, the group considered several options for the future of MEADS, including termination of the effort. The group was led by Paul Schneider, a former Homeland Security Department deputy secretary.

Another option considered by the countries was a major restructuring of the program, giving the United States a senior management role instead of the co-equal relationship it currently enjoys with its partners, the industry source said. Trotsky, speaking at a National Press Club briefing, said the group rejected that option as well.

He said the issue of the U.S. Army’s development of a separate Missile Defense Battle Command System (IBCS) to link all air and missile defense assets was also examined. German officials had raised concerns that IBCS would undermine the U.S. commitment to MEADS.

Trotsky said Schneider’s group concluded, “you can’t compare an air defense system to a battle management system–the IBCS system.”

However, they did recommend that the United States examine the possibility of “harmonizing” MEADS and IBCS, ultimately using both systems.

A multinational joint venture headquartered in Orlando, Fla., MEADS International’s participating companies are MBDA in Italy, LFK in Germany and Lockheed Martin in the United States. The United States funds 58 percent of the program, and European partners Germany and Italy provide 25 percent and 17 percent, respectively, as partners in the NATO Medium Extended Air Defense System Management Organization.

Meanwhile, the program has successfully completed a series of reviews of all its major components. The program can now begin production of radars, launchers, tactical operation centers, and reloaders needed for system tests at White Sands Missile Range, N.M., according to Lockheed Martin.

Under its design and development contract, MEADS International will now provide six battle management centers, four launchers, one reloader, three surveillance radars, three multifunction fire control radars and 20 PAC-3 Missile Segment Enhancement missile rounds for tests, expected to begin in 2012.

MEADS is a mobile system that is expected to replace Patriot in the United States, the Nike Hercules in Italy and both the Hawk and Patriot systems in Germany. It is designed for interoperability among the three allies and to provide 360-degree coverage for troops against tactical ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, unmanned aerial vehicles and aircraft.

A total of 15 system-level reviews must be completed ahead of final design approval next year, according to Lockheed Martin. Initial flight tests are planned for 2012.