Congress has cancelled funding for an advanced missile defense system that has been deployed across the D.C. area during the last few years to prevent against a rising threat from cruise missile strikes.
Congress officially cut funding this month for JLENS, or the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor, a high-tech radar system that casts a wide-ranging protective net across the region to detect and intercept missiles or enemy planes before they reach American soil.
The system was placed on the budgetary chopping block following a high-profile incident last year in which the blimp-like system broke free from its tethers in Maryland and wreaked havoc across the east coast.
Defense industry insiders and former military officials say that despite last year’s snafu, the system has proven critical to the capital region’s defense against potential cruise missile attacks from rogue nations such as Iran, North Korea, and Russia.
The United States has already invested billions into the program, and was set to integrate the system into the larger defense network protecting the eastern seaboard.
U.S. military leaders have described JLENS as critical to U.S. defenses and requested an additional $27.2 million this year to keep it operational. These officials argued that the program fills an essential gap as the threat from cruise missile attacks increases.
"There are three types of missiles we worry about, the third one’s the cruise missile attack," Adm. Bill Gortney chief of the North American Aerospace Defense Command and U.S. Northern Command, told lawmakers earlier this month.
"The Russians are employing these cruise missiles in Syria today, both from bombers, ships, and submarines," Gotney said. "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."
"We look forward to completing [the system] because should it bear out, it defeats a threat I don’t have a capability against today," he added.
Key lawmakers with control over the federal budget did not buy this argument.
Sens. Dick Durbin (D., Ill.) and Thad Cochran (R., Miss.) recently used their authority to block funding, which has set the stage for JLENS to be taken out of service.
"For the remainder of [fiscal year 2016], both JLENS aerostats must be packed and stored until [fiscal year 2017] funds are appropriated by Congress and obligated," said one defense industry source who has worked on the Raytheon-built system. "The future of the program will depend upon obligated funds for FY17 and beyond being appropriated."
The Pentagon must now search for an alternative defense system while it works to secure future funding for JLENS, which insiders say is unlikely now that the system is being taken out of service.
"JLENS was an operational exercise designed to assess the systems’ ability to integrate into NORAD’s Integrated Air Defense System for cruise missile defense," said one Defense Department official who has worked on the system. "While we continue to look for an over-the-horizon capability for the future, we have a system capable of defending the [national capital region]."
It is unlikely the JLENS will get a second chance, according to defense insiders who have been tracking its progress.
Redeployment will be "a long shot if they pack it up now," said one source who works with Congress and the Pentagon on defense issues. "The reason they had to ask for a reprogramming request is because appropriators stripped the program at the end of the year last year in finalizing the omnibus after it broke tether. They basically damned the program right then and there."
Chet Nagle, a former Navy official and Defense Department official who has championed JLENS, told the Washington Free Beacon that the program is being abandoned just as it reaches its final testing stage.
"It is now in a final operational test at Aberdeen Proving Ground that will prove its worth and, incidentally, will protect most of the eastern seaboard from cruise missile attack—once the system is integrated with regional systems," Nagle said. "That integration is needed so that those systems, aircraft, and missiles already stationed in the region, will be able to neutralize incoming cruise missiles to which JLENS will direct them."
Lawmakers are jeopardizing U.S. security to save a relatively small amount of money, Nagle said.
"While under-informed journalists and politicians make statements detrimental to the safety of America's defenses, our potential adversaries are busy," he said. "The speed of cruise missiles is being increased to the point where existing missile defenses, say those on Aegis-equipped cruisers, will be overwhelmed before they can detect and destroy the incoming missile. The Russians, already threatening us routinely, are a perfect example."