NORAD Looking for Persistent, Over-the-Horizon Radar

As NORAD’s mission for homeland defense shifts away from a post-9/11 framework, a key requirement for dealing with the threat of Russian long-range aviation and advanced cruise missiles is persistent, over-the-horizon (OTH) radar. While advanced fighters and ISR aircraft can perform OTH tracking, the cost of the 24/7 patrol flights needed to provide a persistent view with these systems is prohibitive, said Steve Armstrong, NORAD’s chief of strategic engagement. NORAD needs something that can stay in one place and surveil the horizon. Enter the Army’s JLENS program, which in 2015 deployed a helium-filled aerostat, tethered above the Maryland coastline, to provide airspace defense for the National Capital Region through persistent, OTH radar. Less than a year into its initial three-year test period, and before subsequent aerostats in the system could be deployed, JLENS slipped its tether in rough weather and had to be chased down by F-16s all the way to Pennsylvania, where it had cut power lines and caused outages. Navy Capt. Scott Miller, director of NORAD public affairs, told Air Force Magazine that, “the program has been boxed up, put into storage” since then. And while JLENS seems unlikely to make a return given its troubled history, “persistent, OTH radar is something that we certainly require,” Miller said. “While we certainly have OTH targeting capability, it’s not as persistent as we would like, … so there is an ongoing effort to identify a replacement for a JLENS-type program” that could provide it.