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Congress Is Endangering Missile Defense | Commentary

News media are jammed with reports of epidemics, terrorists, and armed conflicts that threaten our warfighters and allies abroad. Just as alarming, our homeland has never been more vulnerable to attack by advanced weaponry now in the hands of potential enemies.

The Army’s Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Elevated Netted Sensor System defense system is designed to defeat weapons that menace our homeland and our warfighters, and will begin final evaluation late this year, ultimately to be added to the defenses of the National Capitol Region in 2015. But according to General Charles H. Jacoby Jr, House appropriators have put that defense system in grave peril.

As Commander of the North American Aerospace Defense Command and U.S. Northern Command, Jacoby is responsible for homeland defense against threats that include aircraft and missiles. JLENS was planned to be an integral part of those defenses, and of the defenses needed by our warfighters based around the globe.

JLENS consists of two tethered blimps (aerostats) floating at 10,000 feet. The two blimps are called an “orbit.” A JLENS orbit has two radars, one on each aerostat. There is a surveillance radar that detects aircraft, missiles, and ships at ranges up to 340 miles, and a fire control radar that tracks those targets for interception by aircraft or missiles.

According to NORTHCOM Public Affairs Chief, Major Beth Smith, a JLENS orbit will be operational by April 2015, at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, for a three-year operational evaluation and integration with air defenses of the National Capital Region. Once integrated with existing NCR defense systems, JLENS will monitor the eastern seacoast from New York City to Norfolk. It is the appropriation of funds for the evaluation and integration that worries Jacoby.

On August 13, at the Space and Missile Defense Symposium in Huntsville, Alabama, Jacoby made informal but important comments about cruise missile defense after his prepared speech. He said that every combat command now faces cruise missiles with advanced technology that threaten to overwhelm their defenses. All our warfighters have asked for JLENS to counter those threats.

General Jacoby noted that it is not only major state actors who pose threats to warfighters, but that non-state actors are also acquiring cruise missile capability. That means terrorists. Cruise missile systems can be disguised as commercial shipping containers, so the threat to the American homeland is growing, just as it is for American warfighters abroad.

The Aberdeen evaluation will be proof of principle, Jacoby said, that will help outpace the growing cruise missile threat once JLENS is integrated with the National Capitol Region defenses. He added that integration was the biggest problem — not a technical problem, but a funding problem. He was reminding symposium attendees about what most already knew to be a dangerous embarrassment: the status of JLENS in the defense appropriations process for Fiscal Year 2015.

In their defense budget markup, House authorizers and appropriators slashed $25 million from the JLENS $54 million budget for FY15. That cut does not seem like much, but it represents 50 percent of funds for the entire JLENS program. Worse, while the remaining funds might enable the Army to operate and maintain the orbit at Aberdeen, there would not be enough to fund integration with the National Capitol Region, a modest $7.5 million.

Some analysts, like Lexington Institute’s Daniel Goure, suggest the cut might be an accounting error caused by the House committees not factoring in the increased expenditures in FY14 resulting from preparations for the Aberdeen evaluation. Whether the House cut was an accounting error or not, NORTHCOM’s Smith has said that while the Continuing Resolution recently passed by the House would not affect installation and operation of the orbit at Aberdeen, evaluation cannot proceed unless JLENS is fully funded in a spending bill that is passed by March 2015.

It took a “Hail Mary,” said Jacoby, but Senate committees did not follow the lead of the House to cut JLENS funding. It is likely the Senate realized that cutting the JLENS budget would stall the project, perhaps permanently, and would waste $2.8 billion already invested in the program.

The defense spending bill could go to conference soon. Conferees should remember that JLENS has already been tested at White Sands Missile Range and the Utah Test and Training Range and was proven effective against a wide range of threats. Nothing in the Pentagon pipeline will replace JLENS capability, or answer the requests by combat commands for a shield against cruise missiles, for many years. The appropriators must hear our warfighters now.

Chet Nagle is a director of the Committee on the Present Danger and writes on national defense issues.

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