Blimps were supposed to be the military’s Next Big Thing. Not the German military circa 1933, but the U.S. military in the 21st century. Defense contractors have spent the last decade designing football field-long, helium-filled balloons with radar that can track planes, trains, automobiles—and especially missiles. Yet one by one, the projects have floated away, victims of missed budgets and deadlines. One of the few left goes by the catchy title Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System, which its manufacturer, Raytheon, calls JLENS for short.
In 2007 the plan was to develop the surveillance technology and produce 32 of the blimps for about $6 billion. Five years and $1.9 billion later, the U.S. Army had four it could test. A January report by the Pentagon’s director of equipment testing cited early problems with the blimps’ “friendly aircraft identification capabilities” and “noncooperative target recognition.” Translation: They had trouble reliably spotting certain friends and foes.
Production of new JLENS blimps has been halted; budget cuts is the stated reason. But the military is going to give two sets—they usually operate in pairs—a last chance to prove their worth. The plan is to leash them for three years at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, practically under the nose of Congress. “Being close to D.C. wasn’t the intent, but it’s icing on the cake,” says Dean Barten, the Army’s product manager for JLENS. Adds Mark Rose, Raytheon’s program director: “JLENS is an extremely reliable system, and Raytheon looks forward to proving this” at Aberdeen. “They couldn’t have found a more difficult environment,” he says. “It’s the mid-Atlantic, there’s a huge number of aircraft, commercial and private, to test the system.” In the past tests, Rose says, the blimps have “performed flawlessly.”
Chet Nagle, a former CIA agent and a JLENS booster, thinks the Persian Gulf or North Korea would have been better spots to demonstrate the system’s capabilities. “But if you want to look good, you put it next to Washington, D.C. You make Congress feel safe,” he says.
Blimps have been used by the military for centuries. In the 1790s, France launched balloons for reconnaissance in its war against Austria. During the Civil War, the Union Army sent a balloon above Arlington, Va., to spy on Confederate troops. The Germans had their zeppelins in World War I, and the Japanese used hydrogen-powered balloons to carry bombs across the Pacific in World War II. Then the threats changed, and it became more common to use planes and satellites for spying. For years, the best-known blimp was Goodyear’s.
U.S. defense contractors have pitched blimps as a low-budget threat detector. They can remain in the air longer than planes, and there’s no need for expensive fuel or pilots. (Unfortunately for Congress, that means no rides.) “It’s a very affordable and cost-effective solution for surveillance,” says Raytheon’s Rose. The JLENS variety is designed to float at 10,000 feet and come down every 30 days to have the helium topped off. They’re moored to the ground with Kevlar cables. One is meant for wide, 360-degree surveillance that can reach 340 miles, and the other for precision tracking. Each is 243 feet long.
That may sound like an easy target, but Raytheon isn’t concerned about an enemy trying to take one down. “We’ve shot missiles through it, and they make holes,” says Rose. Although helium escapes, it does so gradually, he adds. “It’s not like a party balloon that goes ‘pop.’ ”
It will be at least 18 months before the blimps go up. The Army is requesting $60 million from Congress to set up the test site and operate the craft for the first year. The fate of the second pair is still up in the air. “There’s discussion about continued testing in the U.S.,” says Rose. “Or they could be deployed to a location that might be more confrontational.”