While Republican members of Congress arm-wrestle the White House, battling over sequestration and debt limits, the mother of all sea-battles is brewing in the Persian Gulf. Whoever wins the budget struggle, it is likely the U.S. Navy will lose the fight to keep the Strait of Hormuz open, should Iran decide to close it.
There are awesome American naval forces in the Gulf that include carrier strike groups, cruisers, destroyers, guided missile frigates, submarines and other warships. These large targets are crammed into a very busy, shallow body of water with one entrance: the Strait of Hormuz, which is 21 miles wide at its narrowest point.
Iran promises that if it suffers intolerable sanctions or a direct attack on its nuclear weapons program, it will close Hormuz, choking off 35% of the world’s oil traded by sea. The U.S. Navy vows to keep the vital waterway open. What, then, will happen if all of the mullahs’ naval, land and air weaponry is thrown against our fleet in the Gulf? We’ve known the answer for 11 years.
In 2002, the Pentagon held the largest war game in history: Millennium Challenge. Costing $250 million and using hundreds of computers together with aircraft, ships and 13,000 troops, the virtual battle closely mirrored reality. The Blue Force was a U.S. fleet entering the Gulf, led by senior admirals. The opposing Red Force, representing Iran, was commanded by retired Marine Lieutenant General Paul Van Riper. His only naval assets were speedboats, some loaded with explosives for suicide attacks, and vintage anti-ship cruise missiles. With such a meager force, Van Riper had to be clever. He decided on swarms of speedboats to attack Blue ships from all directions with missiles, rockets, mines and a cloud of anti-ship cruise missiles. These multi-dimensional attacks were so quick and in such numbers they overwhelmed the Blue Force, leaving its commanders with no time to analyze and counter the multitude of threats. It was over on the first day. Blue Force lost 16 major warships — including the aircraft carrier.
Then, instead of learning from the embarrassing lesson, the Pentagon did its usual thing. The exercise paused, rules were changed and Blue Force won.
But the mullahs learned, and they know about asymmetrical warfare. Their naval forces now have anti-ship cruise missiles much more powerful than the one that crippled the USS Stark in 1987. They have a growing fleet of speedboats that includes Bladerunners, which are capable of reaching speeds in excess of 80 miles per hour. They have a fleet of submarines. Their drones are explosive-laden kamikazes. And they practice. They plan to create a 9/11 scenario, complete with a burning, sinking American super-carrier.
But that can be avoided. If Millennium Challenge Blue Force was defended by JLENS, it could have survived.
What is JLENS? It’s a defense system with the ungainly name of “Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System,” but it should be called a combat commander’s “eyes in the sky.”
JLENS operates 24/7 for 30 days at a time, and sees the entire spectrum of threats: cruise missiles, aircraft, boats, vehicles and even people planting roadside mines. During development, the system shot down cruise missiles at the Utah Test and Firing Range, and last June it tracked swarming speedboats on the Great Salt Lake. JLENS’ range of 340 miles gives an admiral in the Gulf long minutes instead of seconds to see, analyze and defeat missiles and swarming boats before they reach his flagship. Combine JLENS with a B-2 bomber, and that admiral also has 200 SDB-II homing bombs that can hit speedboats, day or night.
During the $2 billion development program, Congress steadfastly supported JLENS as an essential defense system despite Army delays. JLENS was to be tested in CENTCOM, near the Strait of Hormuz. Congress appropriated money, but the Army dithered. If the Army had acted, JLENS would be there today, watching the Gulf and looking deep inside Iran. But instead, the Army announced the final JLENS field test would be at Maryland’s Aberdeen Proving Grounds, and would not be completed until 2014.
Even JLENS cannot cover Hormuz from Maryland. Regardless, Congress must come to the rescue again and reprogram $30 million (money already appropriated) to get JLENS tested, produced and sent to defend our troops in hot spots around the world. With speedy implementation, tests can be completed this year — if Congress will refuse to be slow-rolled by the Army.
Congress could start by asking the Army to deliver test plans instead of holding feel-good town hall meetings with the grateful citizens of Aberdeen.
Chet Nagle is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, a former CIA agent and the author of Iran Covenant.