WASHINGTON — Russia has no operational need for its cruise missiles in Syria, so why does it have them there? To send a message to the US, according to the chief of the North American Aerospace Defense Command and US Northern Command.

To hedge against the Russian threat, the US military wants to stick with its troubled missile-detecting surveillance aerostat, the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor (JLENS), Adm. Bill Gortney said at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Thursday.

The fate of the Raytheon-made aerostat — which monitors the Northeastern US — has been in question since an embarrassing incident last year in which one of the aerostats broke free from its moorings. The blimp floated from Maryland into Pennsylvania, dragging its mooring line and causing several power outages.

"We look forward to restarting the JLENS program after a very unfortunate mishap that we had," Gortney told the panel. "We understand what happened, we put in place mitigation efforts and we look forward to completing it because should it bear out, it defeats a threat I don't have a capability against today."

To detect incoming cruise missiles more broadly, the military needs an array or radar above the horizon, Gortney said. That could come in the form of the Boeing E-3 Sentry aircraft or Northrop Grumman E-2 Hawkeye airborne early warning and control aircraft, or JLENS.

"There are three types of missiles we worry about, the third one's the cruise missile attack," Gortney said. "The Russians are employing these cruise missiles in Syria today, both from bombers, ships and submarines. There's no operational or tactical requirement to do it. They're messaging us that they have this capability and those missiles can have a nuclear-tipped or conventional warhead."

The high-profile support is the second time in a week, US military officials have defended the program on Capitol Hill. At a separate hearing earlier in the week, Army officials asked Congress for $27.2 million to keep the system's three-year operational exercise on track, arguing further schedule slips could cost more.

With reporting by Staff Writer Jen Judson.

Email: jgould@defensenews.com

Twitter: @reporterjoe

Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.

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