Update: This story was originally published on June 22. It has been updated to reflect a clarification of a statement made by Col. Donnie Wilson. Both NORAD and NORTHCOM are working to address the cruise missile defense gap in the US. Wilson previously omitted NORAD in his statement.
WASHINGTON — The tethered aerostat designed to defend against cruise missiles is slated to be killed by Congress in fiscal 2017 legislation, leaving missile defense leaders within US Northern Command and the North American Aerospace Defense Command scrambling to find another way to address the cruise missile defense gap left open on the US East Coast.
"We are currently working within NORTHCOM now to find some type of solution on the East Coast for surveillance," Col. Donnie Wilson, of the South Carolina National Guard, who serves as operations officer G-3 for the 263rd Army Air and Missile Defense Command, said Wednesday at a Center for Strategic and International Studies event on the future of Army missile defense.
"If you can't see it, you definitely can't kill it," he said, therefore, NORTHCOM and NORAD are "working diligently to find the capability … to provide the East Coast coverage to be able to integrate in the [National Capitol Region] in both shooter and sensor capabilities."
The Army had just begun a three-year long operational test of the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System (JLENS), when one of the aerostats with a powerful fire-control radar broke loose from its mooring station at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland, last fall and went on a joy ride through the sky over Pennsylvania, knocking out power lines with its long tether, before landing in a field where state troopers open fired opened fire on the blimp to speed up its slow deflation.
Wilson said the Army does not have the full capability to provide cruise missile defense. "Even in the NCR today we struggle to provide this overhead persistent capability such as JLENS," he added.
JLENS was on a good path to providing cruise missile defense to the East Coast, Wilson said. "I would tell you that JLENS was on a path to be very successful, short of the slight mechanical malfunction that happened. I was very involved with that program and I've seen a lot of the capabilities. If JLENS is put back on schedule to complete its test I think it would be a major game changer."
The Raytheon-made JLENS system consists of both a fire-control system aerostat and a surveillance aerostat. The system is capable of tracking swarming boats and vehicles, and detecting and tracking cruise missile threats. It can "see" all the way from Norfolk, Virginia, into Boston. The exercise was meant to decide JLENS' fate — whether to keep the system permanently moored in Maryland and whether the Army decides to buy more than just the two systems it now has.
The Army's Combat Readiness Center and the Cruise Missile Defense System's Joint Product Office concluded earlier this year that JLENS didn't escape due to just one mistake or one single design flaw, but a combination of design, human error and procedural issues.
Among the more embarrassing mistakes: Operators forgot to install batteries in the auto-deflation device.
Despite growing concerns over the capability to defend against cruise missile threats, the four congressional committees that deal with the defense budget and spending have slashed funding for the JLENS program, indicating, at least, that lawmakers don't see a massive aerostat in the sky as the solution.
Yet for missile defense experts at CSIS Wednesday, something JLENS-like is the only solution.
"If the recent defense bills in Congress are any indicator, JLENS is dead, but in terms of capability, we are going to have to find a way to say, 'long live JLENS,' because it may be built by somebody else, it may be called something different, but if we are serious about going after the cruise missile problem, we are going to have to find some way to have an elevated sensor that looks at these things," Tom Karako, a missile defense analyst at CSIS, said.
"JLENS is not pretty," ret. Maj. Gen. Francis Mahon, a former director for strategy, policy and plans at NORTHCOM, admitted. "I mean I was one of the original guys in 1988 when I got introduced to JLENS as the mass target sensor. And I said, 'There will be fist fights in battalion S1 because nobody wants to be that platoon leader.'"
But it was quickly realized that what JLENS could see, the data it could provide, and how it extended engagement footprints meant it had real strategic capability, Mahon said. "The only way to get after cruise missiles is to get over the Earth's curvature and you can't do that with a terrestrial-based sensor and you can't put that sensor on fixed-wing platforms because you don't have enough dollars to keep that thing in the sky."