This Christmas, the United States Army will deliver a spectacular present to Harford and Baltimore counties. A pair of big white blimps will be flying two miles above Aberdeen Proving Ground — unless Congress balks.
After evaluation and integration, those aerostats — blimps tethered to the ground — will protect the national capitol region from cruise missiles and 9/11-style attacks. The aerostats carry radars of the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor system, or JLENS, and are capable of tracking cruise missiles and aircraft up to 340 miles away. When operational, JLENS will be able to watch over the East Coast from Boston down to Norfolk.
Privacy advocates worry about what else those blimps might be watching. Some said that Americans do not want government to monitor them and their routine movements, like visits to doctors, abortion clinics or political rallies. Others said, "What is appropriate in a battlefield is not appropriate here. Maryland is not a battlefield, and we are not the enemy."
Those concerns are why military spokespeople, like Maj. Beth Smith, chief of media relations and public affairs for the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and the U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM), have made it very clear that JLENS is only outfitted with radars, not cameras, and there is no hidden plan to spy on Americans.
Underscoring that commitment, the Army determined it would not conduct a Privacy Impact Assessment because it was just not going to collect any personally identifiable information.
Regarding future economic benefits, Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, Maryland's 2nd congressional district representative and top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, noted that JLENS at Aberdeen will generate 140 jobs for workers who will be "buying homes, shopping in our grocery stores and eating in our restaurants," and that the $20 million JLENS investment in Aberdeen "will have a domino effect on our local economy."
Marylanders should by now realize JLENS will not violate their privacy and is of real economic value. What they must also recognize is that Maryland is in genuine danger of becoming a battlefield — just like New York was on 9/11. Since that terrible day, the capabilities of our potential enemies have mushroomed, and our homeland defenses against their cruise missiles and airborne assets have not kept pace.
No one knows more about that vulnerability of our homeland than the Russians, and they have made their knowledge abundantly clear. Last month, two Russian bombers practiced cruise missile attacks from a "launch box" over Canada's Labrador Sea — the best place to fire cruise missiles at U.S. targets. Russian "Kent" missiles can carry nuclear warheads; have an 1,800 mile range; and, launched over the Labrador Sea, they can reach south to New York, Baltimore and the Norfolk Naval Base.
Once the Kent missiles are launched near Newfoundland, they will accelerate to Mach .75 and cruise below 300 feet, almost invisible. In two hours they will be attacking New York and, 25 minutes later, others will be closing in on Baltimore and Washington.
At Aberdeen, JLENS will have been tracking those missiles as they passed Boston. NORTHCOM and NORAD will have integrated JLENS with Patriot anti-missile batteries, fighter aircraft and other defenses and will direct them to intercept the cruise missiles long before they reach their targets — unless Congress fails to save the JLENS' modest budget.
The president's 2015 budget request includes $54 million for JLENS at Aberdeen. The U.S. House of Representatives cut that funding in half, making integration of JLENS with defenses of the national capitol region impossible. Fortunately, the U.S. Senate fully funded JLENS. This sets the stage for a showdown when the House and Senate attempt to reconcile their spending bills after the election.
Major Smith noted that failure to pass a defense spending bill by March 2015 would impact JLENS at Aberdeen. "There are contingencies in place," she wrote, "but the test would likely be delayed."
Congress has two alternatives: Restore funding for JLENS and build a shield around America, or end our only over-the-horizon defense capable of detecting and defeating the advanced cruise missiles and aircraft now threatening us.
Not defending our homeland with a proven system like JLENS is unthinkable.
Col. Gerald M. May worked in the National Security Council, the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the North American Aerospace Command (NORAD) and the Air Force Space Command. He is co-author of "A Cause Worth Fighting For." His email is email@example.com.