The House Armed Services Committee has issued a massive cut
to the Army's Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor system (JLENS
) program to only $2.5 million. With the Army initially requesting a budget of $45 million for Fiscal Year 2017, the slashing could put a stop to the troubled program often referred to as "Runaway Blimp." Political enthusiasm for JLENS has been waning significantly since the Raytheon-made tethered aerostat broke free from its mooring in Maryland, and floated into Pennsylvania, only to be shot down by state troopers. Rep. Jackie Speier stated “This isn’t the first time we’ve tried to kill this ‘zombie program’ — let’s hope it stays dead this time.”
Experiences in Operation Iraqi Freedom demonstrated that even conventional cruise missiles with limited reach could have disruptive tactical effects, in the hands of a determined enemy. Meanwhile, the proliferation of cruise missiles and associated components, combined with a falling technology curve for biological, chemical, or even nuclear agents, is creating longer-term hazards on a whole new scale. Intelligence agencies and analysts believe that the threat of U.S. cities coming under cruise missile attack from ships off the coast is real, and evolving.
Aerial sensors are the best defense against low-flying cruise missiles, because they offer far better detection and tracking range than ground-based systems. The bad news is that keeping planes in the air all the time is very expensive, and so are the aircraft themselves. As cruise missile defense becomes a more prominent political issue, the primary challenge becomes the development of a reliable, affordable, long-flying, look-down platform. One that can detect, track and identify incoming missiles, then support over-the-horizon engagements in a timely manner. The Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor (JLENS) certainly looked like that system, but the Pentagon has decided to end it.