Congressional schizophrenia on cruise missile defense

Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) vice-chairman of the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) understands what is happening in North Korea, Iran, and Ukraine. “The world is reminding us that it’s a dangerous place,” he said.

Nevertheless, the HASC mark-up of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) cut funding for the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor (JLENS) system. This, despite previous strong support for the program by the committee, and Pentagon testimony that JLENS is the heart of plans to defend America from cruise missiles.

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Success of America’s Tomahawk cruise missile convinced countries like Iran, China, India, Russia and Pakistan to develop their own cruise missiles, versions that are supersonic, stealthy, and capable of being launched by aircraft, ships, and submarines. A Russian company is even selling cruise missiles launched from ordinary commercial shipping containers, making every cargo ship a potential missile platform.

Recognizing that the United States homeland is defenseless against such missiles, the Pentagon invested almost $2.8 billion to develop JLENS, its twin aerostats (balloons) lifting surveillance and fire control radars thousands of feet to see over the horizon and to defend U.S. cities and critical assets from cruise missiles. Learning of the successes JLENS had at the Utah Test and Training Range, in 2012 the Committee on the Present Danger sent a study to the Department of Defense and select congressional committees, detailing how JLENS could be deployed to enhance the defenses of U.S. warfighters in the Persian Gulf and on the Korean peninsula, as well as defend the American continent.

Ultimately, an exercise was approved to bring JLENS to the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, close to the national capital. General Charles Jacoby, Jr., commander of U.S. Northern Command and the North American Aerospace Defense Command, told HASC on February 26th that a three-year operational exercise at Aberdeen would establish a capability to detect and engage cruise missiles at range before they threaten the Washington, D.C. area, and “point to a next generation air surveillance capability for homeland cruise missile defense.”

Between General Jacoby’s testimony about the importance of JLENS to homeland cruise missile defense, and the final HASC markup of NDAA, a strange schizophrenic episode occurred. Line item 162, Aerostat Joint Project Office (JLENS), was cut from $54 million to $29 million. Cutting a mere $25 million might seem beneath notice. After all, it’s just 5 percent of the money the Department of Veterans Affairs spent on conference rooms, draperies, and furniture during the last four years. But that $25 million cut is close to half the entire JLENS budget, and such a drastic reduction, viewed in the light of very positive testimony, is a mystery.

But there is more. HASC directed the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to brief the committee prior to June 30th about the impact on a national cruise missile defense program that might result from delays included in the fiscal year 2015 budget request. HASC also directed the JCS chairman to report, prior February 1, 2015, on the status of that program, and identify an authority in the Defense Department to “coordinate planning for the cruise missile defense mission and acquisition of related military capabilities.” It certainly appears that HASC considers defending the homeland against cruise missiles to be a priority. So why is the operational exercise at Aberdeen being delayed?

The Government Accountability Office advised that a construction contract for the JLENS site at Aberdeen would be awarded last February, and the system would be installed by December. In fact, the contract was finally awarded two weeks ago, and the Army now says that JLENS will only “be fully functional by spring 2015.” This will delay completion of the exercise until the first quarter of fiscal year 2018. Unless, of course, there are even more delays.

The House and the Senate have differing defense philosophies, and the HASC and SASC versions of the National Defense Authorization Act for 2015 will soon go to a conference to resolve their differences. It will be the right time for the SASC chairman, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) to bring, in his own words, “responsibility” and “realism” to the HASC version. For her part, Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) should add her concerns about defending our troops and homeland from missile attack, and include her considerable knowledge of the ability of JLENS to “detect, track, and defeat airborne threats.”

The NDAA conference has two alternatives. First, it can restore funding for JLENS and promote plans for a robust defense of the American homeland against cruise missile threats. The alternative of doing nothing is too dangerous to even contemplate.

Nagle is a former Pentagon official, a director of the Committee on the Present Danger, and author of “Iran Covenant.”