WASHINGTON — A multinational air and missile defense system in August completed its final critical design review, and the United States, Germany and Italy are expected to reach decisions on entering the low-rate production phase in October, government and industry officials said Aug 26.

NATO’s Medium Extended Air Defense System (MEADS) is intended to replace the U.S. Army’s aging Patriot air and missile defense system and has been in development for more than a decade. MEADS will use mobile trucks equipped with interceptor missiles and omni-directional radars to defeat cruise missiles and short-range ballistic missiles in the terminal phase of flight. The system is funded 58 percent by the United States, 25 percent by Germany and 17 percent by Italy.

The government-industry team over the past two years demonstrated 1,100 elements of design criteria during 47 separate critical design reviews, and the week of Aug. 23 completed a final summary critical design review slightly ahead of schedule, said Steve Barnoske, president of industry consortium MEADS International. Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control of Dallas leads the industry team that also includes MBDA-Italia and LFK of Germany.

“Frankly we believe no other air and missile defense design has been as thoroughly evaluated as the MEADS program,” Barnoske said during a media briefing. “The MEADS program was judged sufficiently mature to proceed into the testing phase of the program.”

Orlando, Fla.-based MEADS International is now producing test hardware and prototypes and this fall will begin delivering hardware to Practica di Mare Air Force Base, Italy, where hardware integration and testing will begin, Barnoske said. The system’s first battle management and command and control system will be delivered to the base later this year, followed by launcher and fire control radar hardware in early 2011, he said. Surveillance radar integration activities will take place in Cazenovia, N.Y., before all of the hardware is shipped to White Sands Missile Range, N.M., in 2012, Barnoske said. Flight testing at White Sands is planned to begin in early 2012 and last three years, he said.

The Huntsville, Ala.-based NATO MEADS Management Agency in October will conduct a program review with the United States, Germany and Italy during which decisions on production rates and sizes are expected, said Greg Kee, the agency’s general manager. The nations are in the process of finalizing memorandums of understanding for low-rate production and also production and sustainment, Kee said.

“Those details are under discussion as we speak,” Kee said. “The nations are in the process of discussing what type of production quantities they would like for the low-rate production phase, then ultimately for the production and sustainment part of the program. So we don’t have those details yet.”

MEADS International’s design and development work is valued at about $3.5 billion. Development and production has previously been estimated at $19 billion, though updated cost estimates that include sustainment are being studied by the Pentagon.

Whether the MEADS program will continue beyond the development phase has not been decided and has been the subject of speculation. The Washington Post in March reported the Army is again trying to end the program because it does not meet current or future requirements, has become too expensive, has taken too long to develop and is burdened by a cumbersome management structure that requires the approval of all three nations for design changes.

Despite the budgetary challenges faced by the United States and its partners, the capability MEADS will provide is more essential today than ever, Kee said.

“MEADS is a revolutionary system and brings to the warfighters of the three nations a 21st century air and missile defense system,” he said. “It will provide 360-degree coverage, and it will address not only current threats but next generation threats and support the nations for many years to come in an evolutionary fashion.

“MEADS makes more sense than ever today with defense budgets facing significant cutbacks. MEADS is the only multi-national, tri-national program left within the United States. The European participation has freed up $1.6 billion in budget authority which has been applied to other U.S. defense needs.”