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Deep cuts to the U.S. defense budget have led lawmakers to consider slashing funds for a key military program that was nearing completion, effectively rendering it useless in the near term after years of multi-billion-dollar development.
While the Pentagon has invested billions into many cutting edge defense systems over the years, several of them are now seeing their budgets slashed as Congress grapples with the fallout from massive defense cuts known as sequestration.
While the funding cuts are believed to be a way for the Pentagon to cut corners in a tough budgetary environment, insiders warned that programs are being gutted just before they were meant to be deployed to critical regions.
One such system known as JLENS, or the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System, is currently slated to face up to $15 million in cuts just as it reaches maturity, according to defense industry insiders.
Defense experts warn that this relatively small cut would devastate a proven program that could immediately bolster U.S. capabilities as the missile threats from nations like Iran and North Korea grow.
JLENS, an advanced radar system that would allow the military to detect incoming ballistic missiles, ships, and other threats well before they reach U.S. forces, has received about $2.3 billion in taxpayer funding since its inception in 2006.
“Mothballing defense programs that are very near deployment is myopic both in terms of our national security and stewardship of taxpayer dollars,” national security expert Andrew Langer wrote last month. “JLENS is but one instance.”
Billed as the “latest and most advanced” surveillance system to date by the Committee on the Present Danger (CPD), JLENS has the ability to monitor threats from high up in the air, where it can spot incoming boats and missiles more efficiently then current hardware.
U.S. commanders on the ground have repeatedly made it clear that they want and need the program to combat growing threats.
“Because it has this incredible range and is elevated it lets you take a look at an anti-ship cruise missile and see it shortly after it’s launched,” explained Mike Nachshen, communications manager at Raytheon, which is developing the system. “It would give you significantly greater capability than anything else out there.”
The Pentagon was originally supposed to purchase 16 JLENS monitoring systems, but instead ordered just two.
JLENS is “proven,” said Chet Nagle, a former Navy officer and Defense Department official who has written extensively about the system. “If you’re a taxpayer, you’re saying, ‘I’ve got $2 billion invested in a program that works.”
JLENS currently is “on the one yard line,” Nachshen said. “It’s this close to being done.”
However, lawmakers intend to slash the program’s funding as it enters a critical final testing stage, potentially crippling the system as it reaches what insiders have dubbed the finish line.
House lawmakers agreed last month to cut $15 million from JLENS in the final version of their yearly defense spending bill. The Senate is considering similar cuts.
President Barack Obama had requested about $98 million for the program in his 2014 budget proposal. The money was to be spent on further research and testing that would have gotten JLENS ready for deployment.
The proposed cuts could significantly delay the program, according to insiders.
The “seemingly random” cuts will “pull the rug out at the last minute,” warned one defense industry insider.
Experts also said that once a program like JLENS is cut, it is difficult to get the many moving parts back on track.
“Once you cut that and put it away you have to start it all over again and that costs more money,” said Peter Huessy, president and CEO of GeoStrategic Analysis, a defense consulting firm. “You can’t just recreate all of this tomorrow” after cutting it.
Lawmakers such as Rep. Rob Andrews (D., N.J.) have said the proposed cuts do not make sense.
“I realize that this is a relatively minor cut, but it’s a big deal for this program,” Andrews said as the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) was considering the cuts.
Soldiers in the field are being put in jeopardy as Congress quibbles over relatively small funding items, Huessy said.
“We are turning our backs, but we’ve [also] undermined our faith with the soldier who we promised the best to,” he said. “They’re not going to have the best. They may not even have the second best. That’s when it gets a little scary.”
Other key defense programs have experienced a similar fate as the defense budget gets placed on the chopping block.
The X-Band radar program experienced severe funding cuts before finally being deployed earlier this year into the Pacific to monitor missiles threats from North Korea and other nations.
Similarly, the THAAD air defense system was cut and scaled back several times by the Obama administration before deploying the missile interceptor to Guam earlier this year.
Defense expert Nagle said this type of back-and-forth is harming military preparedness and delaying the deployment of critical defenses.
“A set of parameters should be established,” he said. “Let’s go to programs that are either complete or nearing completion, stuff we can put into our inventory.”
“We don’t have the bullets, we don’t have the missiles, we don’t have a lot of stuff,” he said. “And you get a simple one and to say for a few million bucks we can realize that investment. That makes sense to me.”