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Can’t See It, Can’t Shoot It- Why We Require Overhead Persistent Sensors, Virtual Roundtable, September 8, 2023

“So, today we are focused on an unfulfilled requirement that has been out there across all our COCOMs for a persistent overhead sensor that’s resilient, that’s survivable, and most of all, that’s affordable.

And there is urgency with getting this into our COCOMs, especially US Homeland COCOMs in Guam, which is US Homeland, specifically Guam. And this is a requirement that’s been out there for many years, not specific, unanswered. The 2022 Missile Defense Review from our administration today, that is a requirement. In testimony this year, the Commander of NORTHCOM, General Van Herck, “Where is it?” You can say the same with Admiral Aquilino, “Where is it?” And it goes across our COCOM force. And we tend to get focused on the really cool stuff like the hypersonic glide capability, where the proliferation of the threat is coming low, slow, and down below. And that is where our competitors are massing capabilities to do that. And that threat has to be seen, has to be acquired, has to have fire control on that before it gets 25 miles out, which is 100 foot from the sea level is what the terrestrial radars have today.

So, it is a pressing issue, but it is a joint requirement. Let’s just think through this a little bit. If you go back in the history of this type of surveillance, you can start it right at World War II in 1942 where we had 89,000 ships go across the Atlantic with balloons that protected them, overhead surveillance. And you go to the forties and fifties when we had to take on the Russians and we had balloons for surveillance. And you can go all the way to the 2000s when our US Army used it for Afghanistan. And today, probably the second country in the world that’s getting hit, Israel has got a dirigible up called the Dew that’s working that. And in our country, we’ve got… Our border patrol has balloons up, but our country doesn’t.

And so, this has got to come to a movement to get this thing done. And this is where we’re trying to educate and advocate for this concept. It’s not a specific system. It is a concept that has been asked across the board on it. I’ve had some opportunity way back in 2000s to be at the Dugway Proving Ground in Utah to see some of those way back when, when this was still a requirement unfulfilled. And we’ve had our SHIELD program come up and study this problem. It’s a challenge. So, today I think we’ve got a great group here and certainly we want to expose that and explain the best we can on this requirement.”

  • Mr Riki Ellison– Can’t See It, Can’t Shoot It- Why We Require Overhead Persistent Sensors

“I would say we are trying to… Riki, you had mentioned that it’s an unfulfilled requirement. I would say it’s a gap in a recognized requirement right now that we have. We are trying to fulfill requirements for our ability to sense.

There’s just a ton of information that I’d like to share here and I’ll do my best to sort through it and I look forward to comments and questions that will come up. So, let me just rewind the tape back to 1995, if you will, 1996. I was a captain. I just wrapped up a job as the aide-de-camp to Major General Costello, he was a Fort Bliss commander. And he sent me down to the Director of the Combat Developments to do requirements work. In 1996, we wrote what was called the AEROSTAT Joint ORD, Operational Requirements Document. And the AEROSTAT Joint ORD, the JORD as we called it, became the genesis for then JLENS, Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System. And the JLENS, as we’re familiar with is what was… We tested it extensively at Dugway. We tested it extensively up over the National Capital region there in proximity to Aberdeen Proving Grounds. And as we know, the tether broke and we shut that program down.

Before all of that happened though, after the AEROSTAT Joint ORD, then which became the JLENS operational requirements document, that platform was approved. It was JROC approved. It went through rigorous analysis of alternatives. We worked with the Navy, we worked with the Air Force to find out, “Hey, what is the best capability to give us an elevated sensor that gets us fire control quality data, gets us surveillance capability?” As you said earlier, Riki, it is persistent. It is able to detect map of the earth flying objects that have a very small radar cross-section, be able to integrate and meet requirements for things like integrated fire control, engage on remote, and contribute to a single integrated air picture. And we went through the analysis of alternatives in the run-up before we deployed the JLENS. And we looked at J-Stars, we looked at AWACS, we looked at Hawkeye, we looked at tower based platforms, we looked at the whole host of capabilities that would provide us an elevated sensing capability.

And without a doubt, the JLENS platform was the one that came to the forefront. And so, we tested it. And out of Dugway Proving Ground, it showed phenomenal capability, phenomenal promise, both from the surveillance side and the fire control side. And so, to help explain that too, so there was actually, there was two AEROSTATS. One had a surveillance radar on there, which allowed us to look. Because that JLENS was up at 10,000 to 15,000 feet, it was able to overcome things like curvature of the earth, terrain masking, and it was able to look out pretty far, and I won’t talk the ranges here, but look out significantly farther than any ground-based radar could. It was able to look out persistently better than AWACS could or Hawkeye could because it was persistent. AWACS has got to be on orbit, Hawkeye’s got to be on orbit.

Plus they have other missions that they needed to be able to do. And that was a surveillance platform. And then we had a second radar, which was the fire control radar, which was on the second balloon. And that was able to provide fire control quality data, meaning it was able to provide the exact enough measurement data on a track that was flying that we could guide a missile launch from any launcher, whether it be Patriot or Aegis BMD, we could launch any missile or off of a fighter and we could launch a missile off. And then that fire control quality radar, after taking a long range surveillance queue, the fire control quality radar was able to then provide that data to the interceptor in affected engagements.

So, in tandem, those two AEROSTATS, surveillance and fire control, provided an incredible elevated sensing capability at high altitudes to be able to look long range, survey fire control, enable us to take advantage of the max kinematic range of our interceptors then too, because again, we weren’t beholden to the earth’s curvature or any kind of terrain masking limitations that we might have. It enabled to affect those engagements farther out. From an air defense perspective, my mission command is I want max attrition as far forward as possible. When the threats are coming in, whether there are multiple cruise missiles, UAVs, you name it, I want to be able to max attrition as far forward as possible. I don’t even want them getting close to my defended area or my defended asset. And again, an elevated sensor allowing me to look out over that battle space farther away, allowing me to help enable long range engagements, the JLENS was a good solution for that. Also, the JLENS allowed us to contribute to what we call engage on remote.”

  • Lieutenant General Dan Karbler– Can’t See It, Can’t Shoot It- Why We Require Overhead Persistent Sensors

“I want to talk a little bit about defense of Guam too. And the architecture that we are working through right now with the Missile Defense Agency and the services out there, we’re working through that architecture. I’m a believer that we should provide an elevated sensing capability to the defense of Guam. We need to be able to provide something that isn’t limited, that isn’t going to allow curvature of the earth or train masking to impede our ability to look farther out, sense farther out, provide fire control quality information out. Because having an elevated sensor in the defense of Guam, again allows that surveillance to go out, allows fire control quality data to go out, which then will enable longer range integrated fire control. So, imagine if you will, an elevated sensor that’s at 10,000 to 15,000 feet providing surveillance and fire control quality data, and I have an Aegis BMD or an F-35. That F-35 could be out in cap.

The Aegis BMD could be out doing its mission. But now because we’ve got a long range surveillance, long range practical quality radar picture that we’re providing, maybe that F-35 takes shots at cruise missiles a long way away, maybe the Aegis BMD is able to take shots farther away. All part of providing a layered air missile defense in the defense of Guam. We don’t want to necessarily have to wait until the terrestrial base launches, whether those are Patriot launchers or SM-3, SM-6 that are back on the island. Again, we want max attrition as far forward as possible, and again, in an elevated sensor, capability will allow us to do that. And this is an elevated sensor that is higher than what we could do on a tower mounted sensor. Tower mounted sensors, we have those, we test with those.

We have operations with elevated sensors that are on a tower, but that’s just not high… To me, why would we limit ourselves to a 200-foot tower, 300 foot tower when we know and we have the requirement for an elevated sensor at 10,000 to 15,000 feet and we’ve demonstrated that capability?”

  • Lieutenant General Dan Karbler– Can’t See It, Can’t Shoot It- Why We Require Overhead Persistent Sensors

“Every military is looking for that recon, looking for that SA, what’s out there, what’s beyond the horizon. And so, that has not changed. And once balloons came along and then power, and then spacecraft, that allowed commanders to see farther out and that gave them the ability to have attrition further forward, to preserve decision space, know what’s going on. Today, we’re talking about joint all-domain command control and we’re saying sense, make sense, act. It all starts there and you can’t do that if you don’t know what the heck’s going on. So, that’s what the operational commanders are screaming for. And so, if you look at the COCOMs around the world and how they’re dealing with this right now, let’s start with the homeland. And I’m going to use the word criminal. It’s criminal that we don’t have the capability to surveil what’s coming at the homeland to identify it and to track it and if necessary, engage it as far away as possible. We saw this with the Chinese balloon, and how could we not know? How could we not know?

General VanHerck is held responsible, held accountable for defending NORTHCOM’s AOR, and he does not have the ability to sense, make sense, and then act because we have to deal with something as simple as this elevated sensor. Admiral Aquilino and General Cavoli wants SA he said, “Go around all the CO COMMS.” So, what are the operational commanders have to do? Since we haven’t put this in place, this persistent affordable capability, they have to burn our high-end expeditionary assets. So, there’s a fight, but we have 31 AWAC in the United States Air Force. At any given time, only about 40% are flyable. Everybody wants every COCOMM. Why? Because we haven’t put in place the more affordable capability we’re talking about. So, General VanHerk’s keeps up those sorties here at the homeland when Russia flies two U-95 near the coast or when the presidents travel somewhere and he’s responsible for surveilling that area. Instead of having in place, in our homeland, where we control the territory having to place these sensors, we’re having to use the expeditionary sensors that Aquilino and Cavoli and others need.

Meanwhile, you go over to General Cavoli’s AOR. He’s got to deal with a potential Russian cruise missile threat to the NATO. What are we doing there? We’ve sent AWACS over there, some of the few AWACS we have, we’ve got F-22s over there, F-35s, we’re burning those airplanes up, flying them left and right. We’re taking E-2s out of the carrier, air wings, and so stripping that important air wing from its capability and then burning sorties there. All this could be done in a much more affordable fashion, a much more persistent fashion if we simply leverage the capabilities that General Carlin was talking about, him and his teams worked so hard to develop over the last several years. If we do that, then we preserve the readiness of the systems and the readiness of the individuals who operate the systems for a potential high end fight.

And I’ll add on because I don’t want to keep rambling because we’re running short on time, there’s also a deterrent effect here. If the bad guys know that you can see what they’re doing, what you’re sending their way, that they’re going to be held accountable, then I think that makes them think twice before they actually launch something. I’ll take this even to the narcotics. There was a counter-narcotics fight. There was an article that came out this morning, the US marines are taking a page out of a narcotic trafficker’s playbook and building a low profile unmanned resupply vessels. How do you track those? Elevated sensors. And so, we have got to get after this, we’ve got to get after it now. There’s no excuse for not doing it on our home turf here. There’s no excuse for, not in Guam, is our home turf like you said. There’s also no excuse for not helping our allies do it because again, if our allies have these capabilities, then again we preserve the high-end manned aircraft for expeditionary operations should a fight occur. I’ll stop there.”

  • Major General (Ret.) Charles “Corky” Corcoran– Can’t See It, Can’t Shoot It- Why We Require Overhead Persistent Sensors

“We may have a listener out there that’s saying, “Well, it’s just not that simple. This is really complex technology and there’s a huge architecture that’s got to fit in and all that.” And I’ll concede that some of the technology may be complicated, but the principle, we all got to understand this is very simple. This is a layer in our sensing that’s then going to enable the rest of our integrated air missile defenses to be so much more effective. And in the absence of it, we absolutely have a hole in our swing. And we know that this can work because General Karbler worked on the very program. It did work.

Yeah, okay, so there was a tether that failed, but the technology itself worked then and it’s even better now. Are our sensors better now 15 years later? Yeah, I think so. And so, this can be done and the requirement for it is incredibly simple. Just to maybe add a little bit to what we said and introduce a few additional thoughts before we go to questions, Riki. What I heard and fully agree with is there’s really about five requirements that go into this. We talked quite a bit about the first three. So, you need an element of persistence, okay? You have to be there, you have to see there. You have to consistently be able to do that. Second, you got to be able to do both surveillance and then also pass fire and quality tracks and the sensor, maybe a different sensor on the same platform to do the same thing.

The third is ability to communicate as Dan mentioned. If you want to be able to do launch on remote, you got to be able to pass a good track and you got the comp system to do it. But two, that we haven’t really talked about, and this gets to Corky, your comments also about the almost abominable state of the fact that General VanHerck as the NORTHCOM commander can’t see the approaches to the continental United States is relocatable. And my point there is that even if we want to economize some in the acquisition or procurement of this capability, we might be able to do that and it’s by the virtue of the fact that we select a system that’s relocatable. So, let’s say that we don’t have a reason to be concerned in Europe and we need to concentrate some more assets from the homeland or for the second island chain in the Indo-Pacific.”

  • Lieutenant General (Ret.) Jon “Ty” Thomas– Can’t See It, Can’t Shoot It- Why We Require Overhead Persistent Sensors

“Hey, two things, the open architecture with our allies is huge. This could be the linker both in the Pacific, being able to share some of that information we would get from an elevated sensor. It’s a non-controversial one, not a shooter thing. This is doable across our whole domains, but this type of information we have to lead. And that’s the key here. We have to lead. And there’s no better platform, I think the American public…

This is not an offensive system. This is a defensive system that protects their nation. There’s no way. I mean, the public is 100% behind this. It’s ridiculous that we do not have this. We’re spending 6 billion on Guam without this. We’re open in our borders here. It’s coming. It’s got to come. We’re going to keep pushing that to move forward. But what a great discussion, thank you for your candor, thank you for contributing. It’s there, it’s real, it’s been there. As Dan says, since 95. You guys have really helped, I think, educate our public on why this is a requirement and why this has to be done. So, thank you very much. Go, Niners.”

  • Mr Riki Ellison– Can’t See It, Can’t Shoot It- Why We Require Overhead Persistent Sensors


Lieutenant General Dan Karbler
Commanding General, U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command and Joint Functional Component Command for Integrated Missile Defense
U.S. Army

Lieutenant General (Ret.) Jon “Ty” Thomas
Former Deputy Commander, Pacific Air Forces
U.S. Air Force

Major General (Ret.) Charles “Corky” Corcoran
Former Assistant Deputy Cheif of Staff, Operations, Headquarters
U.S. Air Force

Mr. Riki Ellison
Chairman and Founder
Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance

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Click here to read the transcript

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MDAA’s mission is to make the world safer by advocating for the development and deployment of missile defense systems to defend the United States, its armed forces and its allies against missile threats.

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