The Senate Appropriations Committee and, ultimately, House and Senate conferees must restore a small but significant defense budget cut that will delay or scuttle deployment of a key component of our cruise missile defenses. At stake is the $2.7 billion Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor (JLENS) program that successfully completed developmental testing last December.

JLENS is an airborne surveillance and fire control system that answers the need of combatant commanders for an overhead sensor than can detect low-flying cruise missile threats at long range. To do that, JLENS utilizes two tethered aerostats, called “orbits,” to lift its radars as high as 10,000 feet.

To date, the Army has two JLENS orbits. One JLENS was ordered to the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland where it will take part in a three-year operational combatant command exercise in support of the U.S. Northern Command’s (NORTHCOM’s) North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) defense of the National Capital Region. The second orbit is in long-term storage and could be readied for deployment to support another combatant commander in future.

Unfortunately, the House Armed Services Committee’s (HASC’s) mark-up of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) reduced the JLENS line item from the President’s $54 million budget request to $29 million, and House appropriators followed suit. Some Hill sources believe that decision was likely based on estimates the program would underspend the allocated amount. In fact, however, the full amount is needed to complete the Aberdeen exercise. Although the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) mark-up supported the full $54 million request, the future of JLENS still rests with the Senate Appropriations Committee, and then with reconciliation of the House and Senate spending bills in conference.

Prior to the HASC mark-up cut, the NORTHCOM and NORAD commander, Gen. Charles Jacoby, Jr., told the committee that the Aberdeen exercise will “point to a next-generation air surveillance capability for homeland cruise missile defense.” The reason for that capability is that airborne sensors have far better detection and tracking ranges than ground-based systems, and are the best means to detect distant low-flying cruise missiles. Keeping costly aircraft aloft 24/7 is very expensive. JLENS, on the other hand, remains aloft for 30 days at a stretch and represents a reliable, affordable, look-down alternative for early detection and tracking of missiles—and for supporting over-the-horizon engagements. Critically, early detection gives combat commanders additional time to manage and decide on their threat response.

Although JLENS counters cruise missiles and low-flying manned and unmanned aircraft, tests at the Air Force's Utah Test and Training Range proved a host of JLENS capabilities to provide target data. In addition to anti-ship cruise missiles, JLENS demonstrated capability against swarming boats, manned and unmanned aircraft, mobile missile launchers and short-range ballistic missiles, e.g., SCUDs, in the boost phase.

Designed from the start to support air and missile defense systems of all services, JLENS has demonstrated ability to integrate with three service missiles: the Air Force’s Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM), the Army’s Patriot system and the Navy’s Standard Missile-6, the sharp-edge component of the Navy’s Aegis Weapon System.

These capabilities make JLENS a necessity to protect the homeland, as well our warfighters in hot spots around the world. Accordingly, this spring, SASC member Sen. Kelly AyotteKelly Ann AyotteExplaining Democratic victories: It’s gun violence, stupid Trump voter fraud panel member fights back against critics Dems plan to make gun control an issue in Nevada MORE (R-N.H.) added JLENS wording to the panel’s NDAA mark-up to require the Army to brief lawmakers by October 30 on “the options and considerations for a potential deployment of a second JLENS orbit to another combatant command in a future fiscal year.” 

The senator was rightly responding to requests from combatant commanders for a “persistent, elevated sensor capable of supporting cruise missile defense.”  In March, Adm. Samuel Locklear, U.S. Pacific commander, told the senator that JLENS is the kind of system he needs to counter “sophisticated integrated air missile defense scenarios that we face in the Asia-Pacific.” Locklear’s interest conforms to concerns of his warfighting commanders. One was Army Gen. James Thurman, previous commander of U.S. forces in Korea. Concerned about North Korea’s long-range transporter-launcher capability for mobile missiles, Thurman had asked the Army chief of staff, Gen. Ray Odierno, for “increased capabilities” in missile defense.

JLENS can also answer the needs of the U.S. Central Command. In the Persian Gulf, JLENS would provide a sustainable, cost-effective alternative to carrier group aircraft that could then be freed for other missions. JLENS in the Middle East has a number of deployment options: Musandam in Oman; Bahrain; or Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar. On the Musandam Peninsula, JLENS would cover the Strait of Hormuz, 300 miles into the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman, and 300 miles into the Iranian mainland—another compelling reason why the Senate Appropriations Committee and eventually NDAA conferees should restore the entire $54 million JLENS budget.

American warfighters, ashore and afloat, are clearly saying that they need improved air and missile defenses. JLENS must be deployed to defend them as soon as possible.

Morton is a senior national security analyst with Gryphon Technologies.