Imagine Iran, for whatever reason, is threatening the Fifth Fleet, pledging to use its patented swarming boats to whup us.
Well, the Army has spent almost $2 billion developing a capability that can track and provide “target-quality data” to protect the Navy from swarming Iranian attackers. It can also track and help kill cruise missiles. But the service seems reluctant to spend some of the remaining money in the budget to actually use it.
The service takes this position even though its own program manager declares that there is no other weapon system in the US inventory that can do what the program, called JLENS, can do. “JLENS is essential to our national security because no other system has this type of 360-degree surveillance and fire control capability that can detect, track and target hundreds of land, sea and airborne threats around the clock for up to 30 days at a time,” Dean Barten, JLENS program manager said in a press release put out for the Association of the US Army conference. The release noted that the Army’s swarming boat tests took place over six weeks, ending on Sept. 28.
JLENS is one of those systems that looked pretty important when work got underway, way back in 1998. Cruise missiles were (and still are) considered a serious threat to US assets. And, as the Pentagon has since proven in Afghanistan and Iraq, tethered balloons (or whatever you want to call them) let you see much farther, at much lower risk and for very long periods of time once they are deployed. JLENS takes that basic approach several steps further, putting multi-ton radar systems high up in the air with other sophisticated sensors and communications gear that allows data to be fed to aircraft, ships and ground forces.
The two aerostats that make up a JLENS unit can detect targets up to almost 350 miles, enough to cover the Strait of Hormuz and its crucial shipping lanes. Of course, the systems also could be used for US border monitoring.
But JLENS is not without blemish. While we hear its readiness has significantly improved, it did not meet its operational readiness requirements, being ready about one quarter of the time the Army wants — 15 hours between mean failures compared to the baseline of 70 hours, according to the Pentagon testers. We understand it is now exceeding those rates substantially, by some 30 hours. One of them was destroyed in an accident when another airship broke free from its moorings two years ago and banged into the JLENS.
Earlier this year the Pentagon cut the planned purchase of JLENS to just the two units already built. But Raytheon, its builder, clearly hopes the recent test results will convince the Army and the senior Pentagon leadership that in these tight budget times JLENS is worth funding.