North Korea fell off the front pages when the media decided Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un is a fat paper tiger. But North Korea is resolutely sending military advisors to help Syria, an embattled ally and an excellent customer for chemical weapons. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights notes that North Korean officers are now in Syria, directing Assad’s artillery.
So it seems the North Korean paper tiger is dangerous after all. Just ask Kenneth Bae and the U.S. Navy.
Bae, an American citizen and tour operator, was arrested for subverting the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and got 15 years of hard labor. Hostages are usually released after bribes and apologies, but this time Pyongyang says the United States is wrong to think Bae is just a bargaining chip, stating: “The DPRK has no plan to invite anyone of the U.S. as regards Kenneth Bae’s case.”
Besides taking American hostages, the DPRK has downed U.S. aircraft, murdered our soldiers and in 1968 seized the USS Pueblo and its crew. The USS Pueblo remains a DPRK trophy and an embarrassing tourist attraction. The DPRK also promises to strike us with its ICBMs one day, but the immediate danger is that Pyongyang will use its million-man army, 4,100 tanks and thousands of missiles to suddenly attack U.S. bases in South Korea and the 28,500 American soldiers stationed there.
Like the Strait of Hormuz, the simmering Korean hot spot demands more U.S. regional air-, land- and seapower. Today, only the USS McCain patrols the peninsula’s coast, and we need more surveillance systems to support her, like the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System (JLENS).
In 2012, the Committee on the Present Danger showed that a JLENS system deployed near the Demilitarized Zone would see far into North Korea and out to sea, tracking surface, air and missile activity in detail. That data would enhance situational awareness and give ground and naval commanders precious warning minutes, instead of seconds, as they make decisions that could be the difference between peace and war. JLENS, the “eye in the sky,” is not just an idea but a proven and existing defense system.
The history of military aerostats (tethered balloon platforms) stretches back to the Civil War. From 1984 to 1992, the Coast Guard had a very successful Mobile Aerostat Program in the Caribbean. In recent years, the Air Force established TARS, the Tethered Aerostat Radar System, and this June the U.S. Southern Command deployed a Maritime Persistent Surveillance System.
The low cost of building and operating surveillance aerostats has been proven many times, and those economies are increased when aerostats are integrated with defensive systems such as Patriot, Aegis and aircraft carrying AAMRAM missiles. JLENS is now ready as a force multiplier for ships, aircraft and bases in the U.S. Central Command Area of Responsibility and for those in the Pacific Command that oversee the Korean peninsula.
Nevertheless, and despite provocations from the DPRK, Iran and other rogue nations, House appropriators now plan to cut $15 million from JLENS in the fiscal 2014 appropriations bill. On June 14, Reps. Robert E. Andrews, D-N.J., and Walter B. Jones, R-N.C., submitted an amendment to completely restore an earlier $30 million cut in the House Armed Services Committee bill (NDAA) that somehow became the $15 million cut in the appropriations bill. Andrews emphasized he “had no dog in the fight” since JLENS has no industrial connections to New Jersey. Rather, he feels that there is no alternative to JLENS and that it offers “enormous” value to warfighters, adding, “This is a very agile, mobile system, that can be set up quickly . . . and coordinate a lot of firepower at an efficient cost.”
Even the Pentagon’s acquisition chief Frank Kendall wrote in May 2012, JLENS “is essential to national security.” And last fall a demonstration showed JLENS can operate with existing Navy networks to protect ships from cruise missiles. It has also proved able to detect and track tactical ballistic missiles in the ascent phase, as well as detect and track aircraft, unmanned aerial vehicles, ground vehicles and small swarming boats.
The U.S. Army now has only two JLENS systems out of the original plan for 16. As a first step toward acquiring an inventory of this vital system, Congress should restore program funds and add the small amount needed to deploy one system to the Korean DMZ and the other to the vital Strait of Hormuz. The combat commands have already asked for them.
A modest funding fix will quickly move our eyes in the sky over the Persian Gulf, as well as over the aggressive North Korean paper tiger.
Chet Nagle is a graduate of the Naval Academy, a member of the Committee on the Present Danger, a former Defense Department official and the author of the novel Iran Covenant.