Space and Missile Defense

NORTHCOM official: JLENS provides valuable data

Despite the embarrassing setbacks and incidents that felled the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System, or JLENS, one official lauded the information gathered from the aerostat program. 

"I do think it did bring us value in the data that we did collect as part of the experiment," Brig Gen Ronald Buckley, deputy director of operations at Northern Command, said of JLENS at the Space and Missile Defense Symposium in Huntsville, Alabama, Aug. 17.

While teeing up his comments with the caveat that his North American Aerospace Defense Command counterparts would be better-suited to address JLENS issues, he offered that "for me sitting on the sidelines and watching them deal with it, obviously JLENS getting away from us and taking the trip to Pennsylvania was an unfortunate outcome that I think the exercise itself, the experiment of JLENS, did highlight the fact that we do need elevated sensors and certainly we did collect valuable data from that."

In the fall of 2015, the system broke free and traveled from Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland to Pennsylvania causing disturbances for the military forcing the scrambling of two F-16 fighter jets as well as residents left without power in its path.  

JLENS was designed to track cruise missiles and other threats toward North America. 

"JLENS provides unique cruise-missile defense capability to our integrated air defense system for the National Capitol Region. It is in the best interest of the nation to continue the program. Investigators took a hard look at the causes of the incident, and I am confident that we have a plan of action to safely fly the aerostat again," said Adm. Bill Gortney, former commander of North American Aerospace Defense Command and U.S. Northern Command. 

The Pentagon has spent roughly $2.7 billion across nearly two decades on aerostats designed to protect against airborne threats. These programs have been marred with problems. JLENS specifically was part of a three-year experiment to integrate aerostat blimps into the NORAD air defense system, but problems included difficulty in tracking flying objects, software glitches, vulnerability to attacks and, to some extent, inability to operate in inclement weather.   

Despite the significant costs and investments made in the program, it suffered from a raft of problems and is slated to be retired in forthcoming legislation, leaving some defense officials scrambling for a missile warning sensor alternative.

 "I think at this point we all recognize that it's probably a road too far to get JLENS back in the mix," Buckley said.

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