Key Army general calls for JLENS-like system for Guam defense, wants very high elevated sensor

By Jason Sherman  / September 8, 2023

The U.S. military should resuscitate a 2004 requirement for a high-flying, stationary radar to bolster defense of Guam, a top Army official argued, noting capabilities demonstrated by the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System before its 2018 termination are now urgently needed.

Lt. Gen. Dan Karbler, head of Army Space and Missile Defense Command and the Joint Functional Component Commander for Integrated Missile Defense at U.S. Space Command, is moving to mobilize public opinion to shape ongoing discussion about the architecture for a new 360-degree air and missile defense system for Guam.

“I am a believer that we should provide an elevated, sensing capability to the defense of Guam," Karbler said Sept. 8 during a Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance webcast. "We need to provide something that isn’t limited by the curvature of the earth, or terrain masking to impede our ability to look farther out, sense father out and provide fire-control-quality information.”

In 2005, the Army launched the JLENS program -- to develop and field 16 systems that could provide persistent, over-the-horizon surveillance and fire control quality data -- an estimated $5.8 billion project whose cost grew to more than $8 billion before the Pentagon pared back the effort to a research and development project only.

JLENS, which could be launched to 10,000- to 15,000-foot elevations, was a 74-meter-long aerostat packed with sensors and networking technologies to provide a 360-degree view. The system deployed in Maryland could see from upstate New York to Norfolk, VA and was capable of tracking threats as well as providing data that can be handed off to other weapon systems to intercept a wide range of challenges, including cruise missiles, large caliber rockets, maritime- and land-based targets, and tactical ballistic missiles.

During a 2015 demonstration, the tether of the airship broke and the JLENS drifted 100 miles before crashing in Pennsylvania, its dangling tether knocking down some powerlines. The incident was widely noted by the public, upset key lawmakers and embarrassed the Defense Department.

Congress subsequently punished the program by eliminating funding and the Army acquisition executive at the time signed a close-out acquisition decision memorandum on July 13, 2018, formally terminating JLENS.

“It was a good capability,” Karbler said. “The defense of Guam gives us an opportunity to revisit the decision there and include it in the architecture.”

A JLENS-like capability would allow the U.S. to provide a more layered defense of Guam, he added.

“We don’t necessarily have to want to wait until the terrestrial-based launchers, whether Patriot launchers or SM-3, SM-6 that are back on the island,” he said, referring to Standard Missile-3 and Standard Missile-6 interceptors.

“We want max attrition as far forward as possible and an elevated sensor will allow us to do that,” according to Karbler.

Sensors mounted on towers don’t provide enough elevation, he said.

“Why would we limit ourselves to a 200-foot tower, a 300-foot tower when we know we have a requirement for an elevated sensor at 10,000- to 15,000 feet and we’ve demonstrated that capability,” Karbler said.

Karbler suggested that advances in technology since the JLENS program was launched could allow DOD to consider an untethered variant, pointing to advances in the private sector -- utilizing advanced positioning technology and artificial intelligence -- to keep balloons on station.

“This solution doesn’t necessarily have to be the son of JLENS,” Karbler added. “I think there are opportunities out there to explore other capabilities to meet that elevated sensor requirement for improved surveillance and fire control.”