Maintaining defense readiness in the Gulf

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Command and control of this space with the myriad threats we face is challenging. The anticipated use of traditional missiles, aircraft and mines, combined with the Iran's stated threat of asymmetrical naval attacks against our fleet, would create a daunting and complex decision making process for commanders at all levels. Hesitating to avoid a miscue in an area as confined as the Strait of Hormuz (a mere 21 nautical miles at its narrowest point) could easily lead to the loss of significant American lives and assets.

This very scenario was envisioned in a White Paper by the Committee on the Present Danger (CPD) in its evaluation of a new missile defense system that can provide Persian Gulf commanders the information they need to better evaluate and defend the battle space. More importantly, it will give them critical additional time to effectively respond to these threats.

The solution is called JLENS, a missile defense platform that combines traditional tracking radar with a separate fire control radar to direct defensive assets across the entire 360 degree battle space. Suspended 10,000 feet above ground in twin aerostats, JLENS has a range of more than 250 miles over which it can detect, track and support the engagement of multiple targets on land, sea and in the air. JLENS has successfully detected and tracked a surrogate incoming anti-ship missile. It has also integrated with the Navy's Cooperative Engagement Capability (CEC) system and an SM-6 missile to engage and destroy the target. Tests also show JLENS can track swarming speedboats of the variety Iran has threatened to use against larger, less nimble American warships.

JLENS has met and exceeded expectations in testing, and the Army has trained the crews necessary to operate and maintain it. It is this level of readiness that prompted the CPD to write Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta urging his office to ensure that JLENS development continues by deploying the system for real-world testing. Events in the Mideast make the Strait of Hormuz the ideal location for this next phase.

The CPD noted that the $40.3 million to fund JLENS deployment has already been appropriated but is now subject to an Army request for re-programming to other purposes. A quick perusal of the news and review of the CPD White Paper make a stark case for freeing this money for JLENS.

It's difficult to find a flash point anywhere on the globe that involves greater risk to American strategic interests and military assets than the Strait of Hormuz. Any attempt by Iran to shut down or otherwise control this strategic waterway would be audacious and multi-layered. We must be prepared to confront any aggression with a proportionate military response. JLENS will provide additional critical time for missile defense capabilities to track the variety of cruise missiles, drones, and other strikes we might expect from Iran.

As a command and control commander, I know how access to reliable data facilitates the making of critical decisions to save the lives of our troops and civilian populations. JLENS will extend the detection time of potential threats providing the timely information and situational awareness commanders need to clear the confusion of combat to better protect lives and material in the confines of the Strait of Hormuz. The threat is real. The need is acute. The solution is before us;  Congress bought and paid for the next phase of JLENS operations and it should proceed.

Searcy is a retired Air Force colonel and former JSTARS commander.