It’s not an unmanned aerial vehicle and it’s not the Goodyear blimp. But the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System (JLENS) may just be the next big development in aerial intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. JLENS consists of two large, tethered aerostats carrying long-range radars, one for long-range surveillance and the second to provide very precise intercept data. Unlike manned aircraft, the aerostats can stay airborne for very 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 kms 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 and even vehicles on land. Unlike unmanned aerial vehicles which give privacy advocates so much concern, JLENS doesn’t have cameras so it cannot “spy” on what individuals are doing.
So what, you might ask. Well, there are lots of uses for the JLENS system both at home and abroad. JLENS has demonstrated the ability to provide intercept quality to theater air and missile defense systems, including those operated by other services. This is important in places such as the Korean Peninsula where the North Korean Army has thousands of ballistic and cruise missiles poised for a potential first strike on U.S. and allied forces. If JLENS were deployed along the Persian Gulf, it could provide continuous tracking of one of the world’s busiest waterways. In particular, it could follow the dozens of small missile boats that the Iranian Navy and Republican Guard would use, in the event of hostilities, in so-called “swarming boat” attacks against the U.S. Navy. Because JLENS can stay aloft for protracted periods of time, it would reduce the demand on manned ISR platforms to perform the same mission, allowing those scarce, high value aircraft to be employed where they are most needed and reducing overall costs of forward deployed forces while maintaining high-quality surveillance of critical parts of the world.
JLENS also could play an important role in securing the homeland. The Department of Homeland Security already employs aerostats along the southern border. They have limited time aloft and very limited surveillance capabilities. Moreover, they are almost exclusively intended for tracking aircraft. Because JLENS operate at a high altitude and are designed for prolonged deployment, a relatively small number of this system along the U.S. southern border could provide complete air, sea and ground surveillance at a reasonable cost. JLENS could also be used to help secure parts of the northern border, the Great Lakes area, for example.
In September, 2014, JLENS will be deployed outside Baltimore. This single system will be able to provide surveillance of the U.S coast from New York to Richmond. Lawmakers and government leaders should take the short drive up the road and check out this remarkable system.
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