WASHINGTON — The Army has asked Congress to let it spend another $27.2 million to keep the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor (JLENS) system's three-year operational exercise on track.
The service argues that it would be cheaper to keep the exercise moving on schedule than it would to delay it an additional year, according to a reprogramming request sent to Congress. If the Army is unable to stay on schedule to finish the effort in fiscal 2017, it would cost an additional $39.5 million, the document notes.
The Raytheon-made JLENS system consists of both a fire-control system aerostat and a surveillance aerostat, and was undergoing a three-year operational exercise.
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.
After an embarrassing incident last fall, where one of the aerostats broke free in Maryland and floated into Pennsylvania, dragging its mooring line and causing several power outages before it landed in a field, the fate of the system was in question.
Defense News first reported last month that the controversial surveillance blimp program would fly again after investigations discovered wrapped up that found JLENS didn’t escape due to one mistake or a single design flaw, but a combination of design, human error and procedural issues.
The JLENS system's funding was cut by $30 million in the 2016 defense spending bill. The cut left the program with just $10.5 million. The cut was made due to a "test schedule delay."
President Obama's 2017 budget request funds the JLENS program at $45.5 million for the combatant command exercise. The request also notes the Army intends to fund the program in 2018 at just $6.7 million when the exercise is supposedly slated to end.
The additional funding in the reprogramming request would cover $21 million needed to support the continuation of the exercise at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland; $4 million to repair the damaged aerostat; and $2.2 million to "provide mitigation and training to prevent a similar incident."
In order to scrounge up the $27 million for JLENS, the Army is looking to programs with schedule slips.
The Army is proposing to cut $11.6 million from the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle program’s engineering and development account because the program is delayed due to Lockheed Martin’s protest of the service’s contract award to Oshkosh Defense to build the vehicles.
Lockheed Martin dropped its lawsuit last month and Oshkosh has resumed work on the program.
The service is proposing to cut $6 million from an aircraft modification network and mission plan account because "funds are available due to a change in the aircraft platform integration requirements for the Improved Data Modem, which resulted in a schedule slip," the document reads.
Additionally, the Army will cut $6.8 million from to the Army Contract Writing System program due to a schedule slip, and $2.8 million from logistics automation in the research, development, test and evaluation account due to "a rephasing of efforts."
Either At least the House or Senate Appropriations Committee must approve the reprogramming and there's already pushback from one lawmaker aware of the Army's plan to reallocate funds to keep the program going.
"This is one of the most egregious examples of misplaced defense priorities that I have ever seen," Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., who sits on both the Armed Services Committee and the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said Tuesday. "The Pentagon is asking us to take money away from a program that will protect our troops from [improvised explosive devices] and keep them mobile on the battlefield, in order to fund a spectacularly failed blimp that provides no extra benefit to our national defense and does millions of dollars in property damage when it gets loose in high winds. What can they possibly be thinking?"
Jen Judson is an award-winning journalist covering land warfare for Defense News. She has also worked for Politico and Inside Defense. She holds a Master of Science degree in journalism from Boston University and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Kenyon College.