As Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter and senior military leaders make the rounds on Capitol Hill to support the president’s fiscal year 2017 budget request, one critical line item in the battle must get special attention: defense of the American homeland from Russian cruise missile attacks.
 
While nuclear threats often dominate the airwaves, the menace of cruise missile attacks is often overlooked. Never was that more true than last October when an aerostat from the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System (JLENS) broke its tether and drifted into Pennsylvania from a test pad at Aberdeen Proving Ground.
 

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The U.S. Army determined that the October accident at Aberdeen was caused by a combination of human and material failures, not uncommon events in testing, and that it was not an engineering failure. Defense Secretary Carter then reaffirmed his support of the system, noting that “JLENS provides unique cruise-missile defense capability... It is in the best interest of the nation to continue the program.” His comments were followed with a statement by Admiral Bill Gortney, commander of NORAD and the United States Northern Command, NORTHCOM, “Now it’s up to Congress to decide what to do with JLENS.”


 
However, because of the test accident, JLENS funding in this year’s budget was cut by $30 million, leaving the program with just $10.5 million, its operational testing suspended, and the future of JLENS in jeopardy. 
 
The cruise missile threat to the United States that Congress must address, and that media ignore, has been methodically spotlighted by Russia. Routine flights of Russian bombers take place near our borders, and those bombers carry AS-15 “Kent” cruise missiles capable of reaching targets across North America. On October 7, Russia launched 26 “Kalibr” cruise missiles against Syrian rebel forces from ships a thousand miles distant. And then on December 7 a submerged Russian Kilo class submarine launched four Kalibr cruise missiles at similar targets in Syria.
 
The message President Putin sends us is very clear: he can attack the entire American homeland with cruise missiles launched from aircraft, ships and submarines.
 
Those deadly cruise missile threats are why every member of each appropriations subcommittee in Congress now supports JLENS  as does Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), and a phalanx of active duty and retired admirals and generals.
 
Recently, the Army made a $27 million reprogramming request to the four Congressional defense committees to replace funds cut by congress last year, and to get JLENS back up in the air.
 
Defense authorizers and appropriators in Congress know how critical JLENS’s capability is to NORAD and NORTHCOM and they should approve the Army’s request posthaste. Doing so will restore cruise missile defense to the National Capitol Region, once integration with regional defense units is established. 
 
Congress should not stop there. Although the president’s fiscal year 2017 budget requests $45.5 million for JLENS, the U.S. Army intends to request only $6.7 million for JLENS in fiscal year 2018, when operational testing is finished. After successful tests, why not provide funding for series production of JLENS, a cruise missile defense system that will protect not only the Capitol, but the entire eastern seaboard from Boston to Norfolk and 300 miles out to sea?
 
The Pentagon has made it clear to Congress that JLENS is the only existing surveillance and tracking system that can defend our homeland against cruise missiles that will carry explosive, biological, or nuclear warheads. At a unit cost of about $400,000 the system can defend America and also be economically deployed to defend our troops and facilities in places like South Korea, the Persian Gulf, and other hotspots around the world.
 
At an event sponsored by RealClearDefense and RealClearPolitics in Washington on February 9th, Major General Francis Mahon, former commander of the Army Air and Missile Defense Command, said about JLENS cruise missile defense, “It’s all we have.”
 
Congress must not only fund final testing, but also begin to fund planning for more JLENS systems for a cruise missile defense for the entire homeland. The fiscal year 2017 budget is not too soon to start.
 
Nagle is a US Naval Academy graduate, a former senior officer under the Pentagon’s assistant secretary for International Security Affairs, and was a naval aviator and navy research and development project officer.