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HUESSY: ‘Eye in the Sky’ could spot approaching threats

Missile proliferation adds urgency to airborne defense

- - Wednesday, April 10, 2013

You need only to pick up a newspaper or turn on the television to be reminded that threats facing America are becoming more serious and diverse.

In the Western Pacific and the Gulf, North Korea is helping Iran on both missiles and nuclear weapons, a troubling development crystallized with Pyongyang’s recent test of a space launch vehicle and a nuclear weapon.

According to Olli Heinonen, a former lead weapons inspector for the United Nations, the wording of a new agreement between Iran and North Korea mimics the previous deal between North Korea and Syria that led to the construction of a nuclear reactor. U.S. officials also know that Chinese companies have been helping both countries with the same technology.

On the other side of the globe, reports suggest that Iran is building missile bases in Venezuela, which happens to be the exact range needed for an Iranian Shahab-3 missile to strike Miami. It doesn’t take much imagination to envision a rocket launched from a rogue freighter, armed with a nuclear warhead, as a prelude to an electromagnetic pulse attack high above the atmosphere or a more conventional attack, including an airburst just above the Manhattan skyline.

It is a fact of life that missiles are becoming conventional weapons of choice. In “The Revenge of Geography,” Robert Kaplan notes Syria, China, India, Iran, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel are in a “new and deathly geographical embrace of overlapping missile ranges.”

As America searches for solutions, some say deterrence is the best defense. There are more than 2,000 terrorist attacks each year, though, and a multitude of conventional conflicts, all of which have, obviously, not been deterred.

The very nature of state-directed terrorism today, says R. James Woolsey, former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, means that such attacks are largely surreptitious, their origin hidden in the vast expanse of the oceans. Retaliation, and thus deterrence, becomes difficult.

It is clear that America needs a more comprehensive strategy. With motivated adversaries developing threats that are increasingly complex, the U.S. military’s challenge is to anticipate what technologies will best protect its citizens, troops and allies from enemy nations.

One such example is a new system akin to the “palantir,” the magical seeing stone from J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings.” The technology is known as Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System.

The sensor system is a tethered airship that has a revolutionary capability to guide our own interceptors to their targets, using multiple defenses against a wide-ranging number of incoming missiles. The system, appropriately dubbed the “Eye in the Sky” by the Committee on the Present Danger, is a kind of “farsighted” missile sensor and tracker that can spot threats more than 300 miles in any direction aimed at both our homeland and our allies.

In December tests conducted at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, the system detected four ballistic missiles early in their flight, giving U.S. combat commanders robust early warning and tracking.
The system would also be particularly useful to help detect maritime missile launches along the U.S. coast and could be part of an expanded network including a new East Coast missile-defense site recently endorsed by Congress.

Despite this critical need, the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System continues to be mired in Army bureaucracy. After a delay of a year, an operational test for one unit has finally been scheduled for next fall at the Aberdeen Proving Ground.

A second unit, currently sitting idle, could be sent to the Persian Gulf region, where the U.S. Navy’s ability to control the Straits of Hormuz is essential. Such a deployment would guard against cruise missiles, aircraft, swarming boat attacks and ascent-phase missiles and rockets. The system could also add to the coverage of key sea lanes in the absence of sufficient U.S. aircraft carrier presence.

Testing is just the first step, however. In the coming months, Congress must ensure that the United States commits funding to manufacture an adequate number of units to protect our troops and allies in hot spots throughout the world.

It is no secret that some have proposed that the United States significantly curtail spending in such missile defenses, and sequestration could certainly have a chilling effect on developing new national security tools.
Even in a period of an 11 percent cut in defense funding, an investment in better missile-defense capabilities, such as this sensor airship, isn’t a luxury — it is an absolute necessity.

After all, as former Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta has said, “missile shields do not start wars, they prevent wars.” This is a mantra that the Pentagon and Congress should take to heart. Iran and North Korea are, no doubt, paying attention.

Peter Huessy is president of GeoStrategic Analysis of Potomac, Md.