The Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System aerostat helps detect airborne threats at great distances. (US Army)
WASHINGTON — If a US combatant commander stationed somewhere around the globe feels his command lacks the ability to detect missiles, airplanes and drones up to 350 miles away, the US Army might have the solution.
Almost a decade after it first began development, and just two years after a 2012 Nunn McCurdy breach almost scuttled the program, the Army’s JLENS (Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System) aerostat has been placed in a “strategic reserve,” allowing it to be called upon by a combatant commander who has the cash to operate it.
The Army currently has two operationally ready JLENS systems, one in storage in the Utah desert awaiting an urgent call from a combatant commander, and the other preparing to begin a three-year homeland security-related operational assessment at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, where it will monitor air, sea and ground traffic in the National Capital Region.
The deployment 10,000 feet above Maryland will put both Baltimore and Washington well within the blimp’s surveillance range, and as such will provide a big test. While it has already demonstrated the ability to locate and track multiple moving targets on land, in the air and at sea simultaneously, doing so in the intensely crowded electronic airspace of the national capital region will allow the Army to see how it can operate in a dense urban and ex-urban space.
The Raytheon-built JLENS was slapped with the Nunn McCurdy breach in 2012 after the Army reduced the number of aerostats that it wanted to acquire from 16 to just two, saving the service an estimated $1.75 billion over the next half decade.
But after a few years of testing in the desert at the Dugway Proving Ground in Utah, the system has proved itself capable of handling most of what the Army threw at it. The tethered system can reach altitudes of about 10,000 feet and provide 360-degrees of radar coverage for up to 340 miles.
On three occasions during those tests, JLENS was able to demonstrate its ability to communicate with other defensive systems in order to assist the Patriot, Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM) and Standard Missile 6 intercept a target that mimicked a cruise missile.
In that July simulated cruise missile test, two JLENS aerostats helped guide an AMRAAM fired by an F-15 jet to intercept a high-speed target that mimicked an enemy cruise missile.
The July 17 test shows JLENS gives jets the ability to strike targets outside of their normal range since its powerful radar can see father than the jet can on its own.
“Integrating JLENS’ precision detection and targeting information with the combat-proven AMRAAM gives our military a new way to defend the fleet and our allies,” said Dave Gulla, Raytheon’s vice president of Global Integrated Sensors.
In 2013, the JLENS system proved it can detect and track short-range ballistic missiles in their boost phase, and also tracked a simulated “swarming boat” attack while casting its gaze on hundreds of cars, trucks and aircraft in the area of operations.
“By putting JLENS in strategic reserve, the Army is giving combatant commanders around the globe the ability to pick up the phone and, in short order, receive this incredible air defense capability in their area of responsibility,” Gulla said in a statement.
“JLENS has proven its ability to extend the air-defense umbrella by integrating with our nation’s land-, sea- and air-based air defenses to detect and intercept threats, such as airplanes, drones and cruise missiles,” said Doug Burgess, Raytheon’s JLENS program director.
But the Nunn McCurdy tag continues to haunt the program. The funding cut means the system awaiting the call in Utah lacks critical spare parts should something malfunction during a deployment.
And there is still some fiscal 2015 budget wrangling to resolve.
The White House request for JLENS in fiscal 2015 was $54 million, of which House appropriators took out a $25 million chunk in their markup that passed in early June. In its last markup, the Senate funded it fully, but the Senate defense appropriations committee has yet to complete their markup of the bill, currently scheduled for July 17. ■