A U.S. military aero-surveillance system blimp, used primarily for defense, recently went on the offense when it broke from its moorings and created a destructive path of downed powerlines before finally crash landing miles away. Thanks to the blimp’s recent joyride, the U.S. Department of Defense has indefinitely suspended the program’s three-year operational trial exercise.
Developed by Raytheon, the U.S. Army’s Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor (JLENS) is a system of two aerostats, or tethered blimps, that float 10,000 feet in the air. The helium-filled aerostats, each nearly as long as a football field, carry powerful radars that can protect a territory roughly the size of Texas from airborne threats. The JLENS provides 360° defensive radar coverage, and can detect and track objects, such as cruise missiles, drones, and airplanes, from up to 340 miles away.
The Defense Department reduced the number of JLENS “orbits” to be produced from 16 to two, triggering a Nunn-McCurdy cost breach. An orbit consists of a fire control radar system and a wide-area surveillance system connected to a ground control station.
In December 2014, the United States began testing an airship over Baltimore as part of JLENS. The airships carry a radar unit and will be positioned at an altitude of 10,000 feet. At the altitude, radar will scan in a 340-mile radius, roughly from Norfolk, Virginia, to upstate New York. The airships do not carry weapons. The test –now suspended –was supposed to be for three years and followed by a series of additional tests, then airships would be turned over to the Army, who would conduct an operational exercise with JLENS.
Following a series of additional tests, the airships will be turned over to the Army, which will conduct an operational exercise with the JLENS. During this exercise, information from the JLENS will be used by the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), the U.S.-Canadian organization charged with aerospace warning and control and maritime warning for North America. At the same time, the 263rd Army Air and Missile Defense Command, which is responsible for defending the airspace over the National Capital Region, will also use information from the JLENS.
Despite sequestration, budget cuts, the recent AWOL trip, and a halt to testing, the JLENS program will be funded through completion, of that there is little doubt; however, the original large number of JLENS systems once expected to be produced doesn’t look promising at this time. Initial operating capability and low-rate production is expected around 2017.
However, keep in mind that airships, no matter how advanced technologically, will, in the end, always be at the mercy of the weather.