Congress is poised to significantly cut funding for a key U.S. missile defense system that is slated to be deployed against threats in the Washington, D.C., area, prompting outrage from former military leaders and defense industry insiders.
Congress is seeking to slash $25 million from JLENS, or the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor, an advanced missile detection radar system capable of finding and intercepting missiles, drones, and planes far before they reach the homeland.
Major cuts to the system are coming down the pike just as JLENS is to be deployed in the nation’s capital and integrated into the region’s air defense system.
Former military leaders and defense experts warn that the funding cut will jeopardize the JLENS program at a key juncture and potentially prevent the military from employing the advanced defense system in global hot spots.
The cuts come as rogue nations such as China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran significantly boost investments in their own cruise and ballistic missile programs, a threat that JLENS is specifically meant to detect and combat.
Taxpayers have invested more than $2.7 billion on JLENS to bring the system to battle-ready levels. The defense firm Raytheon announced earlier this week that it is ready to deploy JLENS anywhere it is needed for "enhanced protection against cruise missiles, hostile airplanes, sea-borne threats, or unmanned aircraft."
However, the $25 million cut—a very small amount of money in terms of the total U.S. defense budget—threatens to derail the program’s progress and create needless gaps in U.S. national security, former officials say.
Billions of dollars have been invested in the JLENS system, it has been integrated with other systems, and it has been a proven extender of detection and tracking ranges, Chet Nagle, a former Navy officer and Defense Department official, told the Washington Free Beacon.
Nagle said that it makes no sense for Congress to pursue these funding cuts just before the system is deployed for a three-year test run in the D.C. area, a prime target for attack from rogue nations.
"The ultimate danger is that the program will simply wither on the vine and that would be a tragedy" for U.S. defenses, Nagle said. "On the homeland cruise missile defense, we don’t have one. If we were ever attacked by cruise missiles either launched by a surface vessel or a submarine, the only way we’d detect it is when the explosion arrived."
JLENS was slated to receive just $54 million in fiscal year 2015. However, House lawmakers slashed that allocation in half under the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), a sprawling yearly funding bill.
Senate appropriators took the opposite course, keeping JLENS’s funding in tact.
This means that a showdown is set to take place between the House and Senate when lawmakers meet later this year to finalize the NDAA in a process known as conference committee.
The House cut came as a shock to former military leaders and defense insiders, who were expecting JLENS to enter the final testing stage at the Army’s Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, where the system would have been deployed and integrated in U.S. Northern Command’s (NORTHCOM) integrated air defense system for the National Capital Region.
If approved, the Army will be forced to make some tough budgetary decisions about the program.
There would only be enough money left to operate the program in part, meaning that the Army would be forced to choose, for instance, between doing maintenance on JLENS to ensure it is up to par or linking it into the D.C. region’s integrated air defense systems.
"A cut will force the [Defense Department] to make some very hard choices. For example, they might have to decide between maintaining the system or integrating JLENS into the National Capital Region's defense architecture," one defense expert familiar with JLENS told the Free Beacon.
"Or they might decide to partially integrate the system and just use one of the aerostats," the source said. "Those are all bad choices because they defeat the purpose of holding the exercise in the first place and would deprive NORTHCOM from taking full advantage of JLENS' defensive capabilities."
Sources close to the Senate Armed Services Committee, which did not support the House’s cut to JLENS, said that some GOP senators are moving to protect the system.
"All I know is that the [House Armed Services Committee] does not like the program" and believes the money should be spent elsewhere, once source told the Free Beacon.
HASC officials did not respond to Free Beacon requests for comment on JLENS.
As the House and Senate quibble over the $25 million allocation, nations such as China are increasing investments in a range of new cruise missiles.
U.S. Navy Admiral Samuel Locklear told Congress in recent testimony that JLENS is just the system needed to counter "sophisticated integrated air missile defense scenarios that we face in the Asia-Pacific."
Retired Maj. Gen. Howard "Dallas" Thompson, who recently wrote in defense of JLENS, said that cut "could make the U.S. homeland vulnerable to attack."
"As a former Chief of Staff at NORAD and NORTHCOM I was steeped in highly classified intelligence data on the cruise missile threat to our homeland," Thompson wrote in a recent op-ed. "When first briefed on JLENS I immediately saw the potential it offered to defend against this rapidly expanding threat."