Over the past decade, as it worked to secure the homeland and simultaneously fought two conflicts in Southeast Asia, the Department of Defense (DoD) invested in a wide range of new and innovative capabilities. Many of these, while contributing to the overall effectiveness of U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, are going to be of limited utility in other conflict scenarios. An exception to this condition is the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System (JLENS).
JLENS consists of two large, tethered aerostats carrying long-range radars, one for surveillance and the second to provide precise intercept data. Unlike manned aircraft, the aerostats can stay airborne for long periods of time, up to 30 days at a time. But positioned at a relatively high altitude, about 10,000 feet, JLENS can look out to about 550 kilometers and track hundreds of targets at one time. In fact, one of the really neat features of JLENS is that not only can it detect and track airborne objects, including as its name indicates low-flying cruise missiles, it can also locate and follow ships on the water, including swarming boats, and even vehicles on land (think a convoy of ISIS trucks in the western desert of Iraq).
JLENS was designed from the start to support the missile and air defense operations of all the services. It carries a full array of communications capabilities allowing it to feed data to Army, Navy and Air Force units and platforms. In earlier testing, JLENS has demonstrated not only the ability to track a large number of aerial and surface objects but also to provide fire control data to a Patriot battery and the Navy’s Aegis air and missile defense system, enabling them to successfully engage airborne targets. So valuable is the capability that one of the two existing JLENS systems is currently being kept in strategic reserve, ready at a moment’s notice to be deployed to a conflict or crisis.
Operational commanders already see the value of JLENS. Four of them have publicly expressed their interest in the capability it affords. In testimony this year before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Admiral Samuel Locklear, the Commander of U.S. Pacific Command, made the following statement regarding JLENS: “I sent a letter to Secretary Panetta . . . asking for the capabilities that a JLENS-like system would provide in relation to the sophisticated integrated air/missile defense scenarios that we face in the Asia-Pacific.” This is quite an endorsement.
One of the two available JLENS systems is scheduled to deploy this fall to the Aberdeen Proving Grounds where it will undergo three years of operational testing. According to published reports, a central purpose of this test period is to see how the JLENS contributes to Northern Command’s (NORTHCOM’s) portion of Operation Noble Eagle, the DoD-wide effort initiated after September 11 to protect the U.S. homeland from attack. A key aspect of Noble Eagle is the ability to surveil the airspace and waterways in and around the U.S. for aerial or sea-based threats.
The President’s FY2015 defense budget requested $54 million for the first year of testing, including in particular integration of JLENS with NORTHCOM’s other sensors and command and control systems. When the relevant House committees reviewed the program’s rate of expenditures for the current fiscal year in the early spring, they saw that as of that point in time the JLENS program was on track to underspend allocated funding. Consequently, both the House Armed Services Committee and House Appropriations Committee defense subcommittee decided to cut $25 million from the FY2015 request. What no one on the relevant committees realized, according to insiders, is that the program planned to fully expend the remaining funds in the budget in the second half of the fiscal year in order to break down the system, transfer it to Aberdeen and set it up again so that testing could begin early in the new fiscal year. The Senate seems to have gotten it right, approving the full $54 million request.
This simple accounting error, really more of a misunderstanding, threatens to undermine the Pentagon’s ability to fully demonstrate this potentially transformational sensor system. Were the House mark to stand, the nearly 50 percent cut to the JLENS program would make it all but impossible to stand up and adequately demonstrate its tremendous capabilities. One option is to just deploy the system’s surveillance radar. The problem with this is that the capabilities of this sensor have already been demonstrated in earlier tests. What is required is a full operational test of the entire system, one that demonstrates its ability to both provide broad area surveillance and high accuracy tracking of individual objects, as part of the integrated air defense of the continental United States.
Defense budget conferees have a chance to correct the House’s inadvertent error. They need to restore the $25 million to the program.
Find Archived Articles: