Budget dysfunction hurts military

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With our military’s drawdown in Iraq complete and the combat mission in Afghanistan nearing its end, it is clearly the beginning of a new chapter at the Pentagon. New and emerging threats — totally unlike those our military has encountered in past conflicts — require authorizers and appropriators on Capitol Hill to change the way they do business, too.  

Of urgent concern is that over the past two decades —especially during the past 12 years — while our attention has been diverted by counterinsurgency, our traditional, historic potential adversaries have literally “gone to school” on how America wages war.

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Specifically, they have keyed in on our repeated successes using precision-guided cruise missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). They watched as the Tomahawk missile and the Predator and Reaper UAVs became not just an indispensable part of an overall military campaign in the Middle East but also “stand-alone” military instruments of national policy.

These new technologies played integral roles in the punitive strikes against Sudan, the targeting of al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan and the ongoing drone campaign against a variety of terrorist groups. 

Proliferation of many of these systems has also been dramatic. So now, in a manner strikingly similar to our nation’s vulnerability to cyberattack, we find our homeland potentially held at risk by these threats.

Advances in cruise missile and UAV technologies have skyrocketed over the past decade, especially among potential adversaries. They have developed and fielded cruise missiles with very high precision, significant stealth and unprecedented long-range capabilities. This includes both air- and submarine-launched variants with conventional and nuclear warheads. 

UAVs are being employed for multiple purposes across the globe and are readily available to al Qaeda and others. A perusal of open source information on the Internet reveals enough of a threat snapshot to give reason for pause. Similarly, open source Russian military periodicals and doctrinal journals demonstrate the country’s perfect understanding of just what such a capability offers: a highly precise, relatively low-collateral-damage weapon that does not bridge the nuclear threshold, thus avoiding a large-scale response, but is potentially devastating to key U.S. homeland capacities.  

While we have impressively capable systems to intercept and destroy incoming cruise missiles and UAVs, they require persistent, long-range surveillance and detection of small, stealthy targets. Currently, the military systems able to provide such “cueing” do not have the persistence nor the necessary range, and their affordability in this period of budget austerity further complicates their use.

In a recent speech before the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel outlined his future priorities for the Pentagon. Among them was to support deserving emerging technologiesOne such emergent surveillance technology represents the most proven and potent counter cruise missile and UAV system seen to date: the Joint Land Elevated Netted Sensor, or JLENS.

JLENS is a proven, highly effective system against a myriad of threats. In recent testing, JLENS successfully detected and tracked a cruise missile target. Using its network capability, JLENS passed target quality data to an airborne fighter, which then destroyed the target. 

This network capability allows JLENS to cue the same data to the Army’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) and Phased Array Tracking Radar to Intercept On Target (PATRIOT) systems, as well as the Navy’s SM-6 missile. And because its radars are elevated aboard tethered “blimps,” JLENS has unique persistence and range capabilities, exactly the type needed to meet the asymmetrical threats faced by America’s Armed Forces.

JLENS is currently scheduled to deploy to the Aberdeen test facility in Maryland, where it will undergo further testing. While at Aberdeen, JLENS will be integrated into North American Aerospace Defense Command’s (NORAD) existing defenses for the National Capital Region. There it will play a vital role in protecting the Capital Region, as well as demonstrating its potential to be incorporated fully into NORAD’s and U.S. Northern Command’s (NORTHCOM) defense of the homeland.

Unfortunately, however, JLENS is currently an innocent casualty of the budget dysfunction in Washington. Although fully funded in the Senate’s version of its defense spending bill, the JLENS budget was reduced by $15 million in the House.

JLENS is the most effective, affordable and proven counter cruise missile and UAV capability available to the nation today. This is true both for domestic defense and for the defense of deployed forces in the field. JLENS represents one of the U.S. Army’s primary contributions to a real 21st century national defense, and is a technological down payment on perhaps even more capable variations yet to come. 

Congress needs to take the Senate approach and fully fund JLENS so the Aberdeen demonstration can proceed, and then wholly support its logical incorporation into NORAD and NORTHCOM for the defense — a 21st century defense — of our homeland.

Thompson is a former chief of staff for NORAD/NORTHCOM and Air Force fighter pilot.

 

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