In the coming weeks the House Armed Services committee, its members and staffers, will have the opportunity to reverse a seriously short sighted and misguided budgetary action it took during its mark-up of the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act.
Specifically, House authorizers cut funding for the only existing, viable, and proven cruise missile defense system available to the nation. This is a reckless, even dangerous, step that threatens the national defense not just in the short term, but for many years to come.
The Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor is an Army system developed to provide persistent, wide-area surveillance and fire control to a host of joint weapons systems. Although it has demonstrated capability against a multitude of potential threats — including light Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, low flying light aircraft, and swarming small boats — its primary and most strategically significant capability is against low, fast and stealthy cruise missiles.
After a series of successful tests, the system has been deployed to Aberdeen, Md., for a three-year operational integration exercise with the existing NORAD and US Northern Command’s (NORTHCOM) air defense structure for the capital region. In order to affect that integration exercise the president’s budget requested an extremely modest sum of $54 million dollars.
The Senate Armed Services Committee in their mark-up fully supported JLENS, its budget, and its integration into the air defenses of the Washington, D.C., area. However, their House counterparts inexplicably cut the requested funding nearly in half — $25 million — despite a clearly dangerous threat environment that is growing only more so.
In the past few years there has been an explosion of development and deployment of highly capable, stealthy, air-launched, surface-launched, and submarine-launched cruise missiles, both conventional and nuclear, primarily by Russia and then China.
Open source literature has documented well the capabilities of the Russian systems, including their exceptionally long range. And Russia has been offering its cruise missiles on the international arms market for years. It is even marketing a canistered cruise missile system that outwardly appears to be a shipping container, potentially making any commercial container ship a threat to the U.S. homeland.
Less was known about China’s cruise missile development until a recent National Defense University sponsored analysis was completed by the Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs. Its analysis and conclusions are sobering, especially when discussing the potential for proliferation of these systems, including export to other nation-states or non-state actors.
This data is all open source. House members and staffers have access to the classified details, which are even more damning.
Perhaps most important is that military leaders want surveillance capability deployed to global hotspots and vulnerable areas. In his testimony to the Senate, General Charles Jacoby, commander of NORAD and NORTHCOM, specifically referenced the planned JLENS Aberdeen integration exercise, saying it would “establish a new capability to detect and engage cruise missiles at range before they threaten the Washington, D.C., area” and that JLENS’ “capabilities can point to a next generation air surveillance capability for homeland cruise missile defense.”
Admiral Samuel Locklear, commander in the Pacific, voiced similar support for JLENS in his recent Senate testimony. He said such a system was important when considering the threat situations his forces face. However, his most important point may have been when he stressed the absolute necessity for integration testing — the very reason for the Aberdeen exercise. “It is important, I think, since it is relatively a new technology, to kind of get it out, test it. You cannot just bring these things in overnight and expect them to be properly integrated,” he said.
As a former Chief of Staff at NORAD and NORTHCOM I was steeped in highly classified intelligence data on the cruise missile threat to our homeland. When first briefed on JLENS I immediately saw the potential it offered to defend against this rapidly expanding threat.
JLENS is not just part of an answer for today’s environment, it represents a crucial technological down payment on what an eventual comprehensive cruise missile defense posture for North America might look like in the future.
GEN Jacoby has it right. ADM Locklear has it right. The Senate Armed Services Committee has it right. In the upcoming conference on the 2015 NDAA the members and staffers on the House Armed Services Committee must get it right too.
Retired Maj. Gen. Howard “Dallas” Thompson is a former chief of staff for NORAD/NORTHCOM and Air Force fighter pilot.