LENS Is A Successful Joint Program That the Warfighters Need
Joint programs are a management challenge. There is the need to reconcile the often very different requirements of two or more services. This problem can be rendered even more difficult if the new program is intended to replace a number of existing systems. A service participating in a joint program may have an alternative capability under development. Perturbations in funding provided by participant services are not uncommon.
So, it is noteworthy when a joint program is successful. It is even more significant when a Combatant Commander formally requests the deployment of a joint capability even before it is fully operational.
Such a success is the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System (JLENS) for which the Army is the program manager. This is a long and complicated name for a very straightforward, but highly capable surveillance system. JLENS consists of two large aerostats carrying long-range radars, one for long-range surveillance and the second to provide very precise intercept data.
The aerostats are tethered to the ground with an umbilical cord that also provides power to the systems on the platforms as well as a communications link. Unlike manned aircraft, the aerostats can stay airborne for very long periods of time, days and even weeks. But operating like an aircraft at about 10,000 feet, JLENS can look out to about 550 kms and track hundreds of targets at one time. Its range provides critical advanced warning, cueing for defenses and, most particularly, what the military calls fire control quality targeting solutions meaning that an air or missile defense interceptor can be launched based solely on JLENS data.
Last year, JLENS successfully provided fire control data to a Patriot battery which launched an interceptor to shoot down a test ballistic missile. In a couple of weeks the system will be tested in support of the Navy’s Aegis air defense system, supporting a Standard Missile 6 engagement with an airborne target. This is a system for all the services.
What is really important about JLENS is that not only can it see and track cruise missiles, the threat it was intended to counter, but it can also find and follow airplanes, low flying drones, tactical ballistic missiles and military rockets. Even more significant, JLENS has a demonstrated capability to see moving objects on the earth’s surface such as tanks, trucks, missile launchers and even small boats.
As a joint program, JLENS was designed from the start to support the missile and air defense operations of all the services. It carries a full array of communications capabilities allowing it to feed data to Army, Navy and Air Force units and platforms.
The JLENS uses proven technologies, principally large blimps or aerostats and sensors developed for other programs such as the Theater High Altitude Air Defense and the Predator unmanned aerial vehicle. The U.S. military now deploys hundreds of aerostats, albeit smaller ones, in Afghanistan. The Department of Homeland Security has employed aerostats with radar to surveil our Southern border. The genius behind JLENS is the marrying of proven platform, surveillance and communications technologies together to create a capability greater than could be otherwise achieved.
General James Mattis, the general in charge of CENTCOM, put in an urgent request for JLENS to be deployed to his theater. At a time when tensions with Iran are escalating and forces are flowing into the region, deploying JLENS makes sense.
From a safe site in Oman or Bahrain, JLENS could provide persistent surveillance of most of the Persian Gulf providing critical support to U.S. Navy forces operating in the area as well as early warning for U.S. forces and allies of an air or missile attack.
JLENS offers an opportunity for soldiers to help protect sailors going in harm’s way. It doesn’t get more joint than that.