An increasingly likely outcome of the looming budget sequester is the prospect of all Pentagon programs being cut equally — about 10 percent — regardless of performance, potential or priority. The administration and Congress may actually allow this to happen, damaging successful and well-performing programs in the developmental pipeline while preserving failing or antiquated programs. Doing so would be a major mistake.
These dangerous, across-the-board cuts are likely because Congress and the administration are reluctant to take a hard look at military programs and pick winners and losers. Combine this political atmosphere with national security needs and the result is a flawed approach to budgeting.
One of the clearest illustrations of this folly involves the program known as JLENS, the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor. The system uses two aerostats to elevate a tracking radar and a fire control radar above the battle space. The radars are linked with other defensive systems, allowing JLENS to detect, track and destroy enemy cruise missiles, land vehicles, swarming boats and even tactical ballistic missiles, a capability confirmed in a December test at the White Sands Missile Range.
During my time as chief of staff for the U.S. Northern Command and the North American Aerospace Defense Command, I saw the system’s strategic capabilities. JLENS can provide surveillance, early warning and threat targeting for 360 degrees, out to 300 miles, for as long as 30 days. By linking with land-based Army missiles, sea-borne missiles on Navy warships, and airborne Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps fighters, it becomes an important force multiplier.
The need for a system like JLENS becomes more acute in the context of strategic geography. Threats to the Strait of Hormuz, the greater Persian Gulf region and the Korean Peninsula have become commonplace among rogue states like Iran and North Korea.
Each of the services is re-examining themselves against the realities of the future of warfare. For the Air Force and the Navy, the Air-Sea Battle concept guides much of their planning. For the Army, JLENS and the growth of its technology represents one affordable and achievable adaptation to the joint fight of the future. It leverages existing missile capabilities along with our growing next-generation fighter aircraft force yet it will effectively be stillborn unless Congress and the administration work together to give the Pentagon authority to prioritize.
The choice is clear. Congress should act to prevent any loss of momentum JLENS has achieved to this point and reprogram the necessary funding to move forward with a planned demonstration of the system. To do otherwise creates a grave risk to a good system and the troops it protects.
Retired Maj. Gen. Howard “Dallas” Thompson is a former chief of staff for NORAD/NORTHCOM and Air Force fighter pilot. The general is not employed by companies involved with any of the programs mentioned in this piece.
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