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In the backdrop of Russia launching 26 long-range cruise missiles from more than 1,000 miles away into Syria from the Caspian Sea, Admiral Bill Gortney, the NORTHCOM Commander, stated last week in Washington DC, that he is concerned about the threat to the North American airspace posed Russian long-range cruise missiles and their aviation platforms that today do not have to leave Russian airspace. “It forces us to catch arrows rather than go where we need to go and shoot the archers.”

Unknown to most Americans, Admiral Gortney, who is in charge of the defense of the U.S. homeland, made the command decision with Presidential and Congressional approval to test and exercise over a span of two years an existing and proven air-based cruise missile sensor. The system is already paid for by the United States government to counter existing and developing asymmetrical “low and slow” air breathing and cruise missile threats to the National Capital Region (NCR). This decision was purely threat-driven and clearly in the best national interest to protect our nation’s capital, the governing center of power of the United States, as the proliferation of cruise missile production around the globe is unchecked and growing rapidly.

That system, the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor (JLENS) developed by the U.S. Army, was proven at the Dugway Proving Grounds in Utah with successful tracking and intercepts of air-breathing threats by U.S. military aircraft, land-based air defense, and sea-based air defense systems. This unique system also provides the backbone of a joint architecture, enabling use of the best sensors with the best shooters across the services. Two of these orbits were developed, and tested. One of the orbits is in storage in Utah and the other is deployed today in a test configuration in the National Capital Region, based at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland. Testing of this air-based solution for the defense of the NCR will continue until 2017 when a decision will be made for the system’s future. It is a tremendously valuable system that has been requested by our Combatant Commanders in EUCOM, CENTCOM and PACOM for persistent situational awareness due to the capability of the system for 360-degree coverage over hundreds of miles, with early warning detection over a much larger area, combined with its capability to correctly distinguish multiple friendly and hostile targets for firing against air, sea, and land threats to forward operating bases and territory under threat.

Also unknown to most Americans, there are gaps in coverage of air space especially for “low and slow” air-breathing threats around all major cities in the country, including the National Capital Region. Current systems cannot adequately track, identify and monitor “low and slow” air breathing objects– friend or foe– with the existing land-based sensors at civilian airports and military installations. This vulnerability is due to the sensing restrictions inherent in radars that cannot propagate through natural terrain barriers, tall buildings, and the curvature of the earth, and lack the appropriate radar bandwidth to identify the small cross-section of certain unidentified flying objects. In today’s world of accelerating proliferation of UAVs and cruise missiles, coupled with the complexity of threats from rogue nations to terrorist organizations and deviant individuals, all of our nation’s cities, and especially the National Capital Region, are vulnerable to attack.

The JLENS system overcomes the limitations and restrictions of land-based radars to adequately track, identify, and monitor incoming, as well as domestically launched, air-breathing objects 360-degrees around a domestic region, city or capital. JLENS provides sensors that work at high altitudes with small radar wave propagation, looking down, rather than across and up, from land or sea, allowing it to locate, identify, and track moving objects in the air, land and sea. If these objects are seen as threatening, JLENS can provide exact targeting information to aircraft to destroy these objects with air-to-air interceptors, surface-to-air interceptors and sea-to-air interceptors. A JLENS system consists of an orbit of two stationary aerostats, balloon-like platforms, that are tethered up to 10,000 feet above the ground with each having a separate radar bandwidth–one larger band for early warning detection and one smaller band for fire control data solutions. They are naturally and physically self-defended, identifying anything that threatens them, and are only taken down for bad weather, an environment in which any air-breathing threats will face a severe challenge.

Recently, the Los Angeles Times published an article that sensationally misinformed its readers in a three-page layout story, which labeled JLENS a wasteful ‘zombie’ program. But the facts are that this system is mission critical for our nation, and it has overcome most of the issues highlighted by the article, which relied on outdated reports to make its case. To start, significant work has been done on the JLENS project since the reports cited in the article were written allowing the system to meet 395 of the 400 requirements, requiring only five waivers, for a system that just began two years of operational testing before a decision is made on an operational deployment. The most outrageous example cited by the article of JLENS deficiencies is its failure to track the gyrocopter of a Florida postal worker on April 15, 2015 when it landed on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol. This accusation completely ignored that the JLENS system was not operational at that time, as Admiral Gortney testified to Congress. Full operational testing is not scheduled to begin until this fall.

To add further misinformation on JLENS system reliability, the article relies on outdated reports that neglect the testing successes of the program. While it offhandedly mentions the successful JLENS integration test with Patriot systems, it leaves out additional successful tests using the AMRAAM and Standard Missile-6 to intercept a mixture of cruise missiles and drones. During the SM-6 and AMRAAM tests, JLENS successfully transmitted targeting data for surrogate anti-ship cruise missiles through netted architectures, illustrating that software glitches cited in the article are issues that can be remedied. Software upgrades continue to increase the systems capability and reliability in the same way software upgrades do in our personal computer systems to stay current and fix previous issues. Most recently, JLENS proved the capability to integrate with NORAD’s Battle Control System-Fixed, which illustrates that prior integration issues have been left far behind.

The article also argues that the contractor support required during tests somehow invalidates these incredible successes, when in fact those efforts paved the way for the Army’s A3 Battery soldiers to take full control of the JLENS operation. This issue was resolved long ago, as a 2013 statement by former JLENS program director Doug Burgess suggests when he pointed out the program was moving away from requiring contractor support and that he was, “very impressed with some of the young lieutenants on their knowledge and ability to operate a very sophisticated system.” With time, training, and experience, the operators of JLENS continue to build confidence in their ability to operate the system.

The article also seeks to portray JLENS as a vulnerable and inflexible system that is easily grounded by severe weather. Since April 2015, JLENS has achieved 80 percent operational availability, growing to 90 percent in four of the past six months. All air assets are to some degree affected by severe weather, but the JLENS system has shown its resilience and the ability to provide persistent radar coverage in a wide range of conditions. Contrary to the claims of the article, a JLENS system is easier to move than a Patriot battery, and construction and maintenance costs have been much lower than portrayed. The article claims that $20 million was spent on pouring concrete footings for JLENS, which is obviously false considering the sites do not use concrete or concrete footings. The $20 million went to the Army Corps of Engineers for installation of a gravel pad and support and security infrastructure.

Critics of JLENS argue that the large, white balloons would make attractive targets for enemy fire, but the same could be said of any forward deployed radar systems. The aerostats were designed with a small differential pressure between inside and outside the aerostat to reduce vulnerability to small arms fire, a concept proven during testing in the 1990’s. The more than 300-mile range of radar coverage JLENS provides allows it to track missiles far away from where it is actually deployed, reducing its vulnerability. The fact is that any radar systems based in theater will present a high value target for adversaries, putting a premium on the extended battlespace that JLENS provides.

According to the LA Times, these issues should have long ago condemned the JLENS program, but the efforts of military officials and contractors have kept the program running. It cites the efforts of Gen. Peter Chiarelli, who was instrumental in cutting budgets for JLENS during his time as vice chief of staff for the Army at a time it was immersed in fighting a war because he did not see it as effective against rockets and mortars that were killing American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. This line of argument assumes that all future conflicts the United States will participate in will mirror those of the past. The development of cruise missile arsenals in Russia, China, and Iran, and the potential for this technology to proliferate around the globe makes this a faulty assumption. The use of cruise missiles by Russia to strike targets in Syria from the Caspian Sea and the wide availability of this technology to other nations should leave no doubt that these weapons will be a major part of future conflicts.

The article’s suggested alternative to fill the capacity provided by JLENS is investment in improved intelligence to facilitate the use of preemptive weapons systems. This recommendation leaves our nation’s capital region and the millions of people that live there vulnerable, exposed and without a visible proven deterrent unable to match the capability that JLENS provides. Intelligence, no matter how good, cannot possibly provide the real-time sensing capabilities that JLENS promises to provide in the heat of an engagement involving cruise missiles. The additional cost of strike assets and intelligence personnel would dwarf the JLENS program and be structurally incapable of providing the same type of information. The cost of deploying the required AWACS, JSTARS, or E-2C’s to provide the data for these new analysts and strike assets would be five to seven times the cost of a single JLENS pair to provide the same capability.

JLENS has the potential to “catch the arrows,” providing a vital capability for defending our nation against emerging air-breathing threats and to our warfighters around the globe. One JLENS orbit can provide this capability over a territory the size of Texas, to allow air and missile defenders the battlespace to defeat threats to the American public and its armed forces. The ongoing operational exercise in the National Capitol Region gives the U.S. Army the time and ability to resolve past issues, which have largely been dealt with since the reports cited in the Los Angeles Times article were released.

Riki Ellison
Chairman and Founder
Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance

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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.

MDAA is the only organization in existence whose primary mission is to educate the American public about missile defense issues and to recruit, organize, and mobilize proponents to advocate for the critical need of missile defense. We are a non-partisan membership-based and membership-funded organization that does not advocate on behalf of any specific system, technology, architecture or entity.