Costly blimp surveillance program is looking a little deflated

Costly blimp surveillance program is looking a little deflated

The Pentagon’s nearly two-decade-long, $2.7 billion program for high-tech blimps designed to protect against airborne threats has been fraught with problems, according to an investigation by the Los Angeles Times and Baltimore Sun.

The Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System, or JLENS, consists of two tethered helium-filled aerostats floating at 10,000 feet. As part of a three-year experiment in integrating aerostats into the NORAD air defense system, the two Baltimore-area blimps were built to hover for 30 days at a time and are designed to protect a region the size of Texas from airborne threats by providing over-the-horizon surveillance.  They are equipped with cruise missile detection radar that would nearly double the range of ground systems.

However, according to the investigation:

  • In tests, JLENS had difficulty tracking flying objects and distinguishing friendly aircraft from threatening ones.
  • The Pentagon's Operational Test and Evaluation office faulted the system in 2012 in four "critical performance areas" and rated its reliability as "poor." A year later, the agency said JLENS had "low system reliability."
  • The system has not yet provided continuous air-defense surveillance for 30 days at a time.
  • Software glitches have hobbled JLENS' ability to communicate with the nation's air-defense networks.
  • The blimps can be grounded by bad weather and would be vulnerable to enemy attack.

While the first aerostat launched in December 2014, “software problems with the fire-control radar have kept the second airship on the ground for most of this year,” the Tribune’s report discovered.

Less expensive than aircraft equipped with the Airborne Warning and Control System, aerostats have long been used in war zones for surveillance.  In 2012, Customs and Border Protection conducted trials of aerostats along the border, part of a larger effort to test various technologies for border surveillance.

About the Author

Mark Pomerleau is a former editorial fellow with GCN and Defense Systems.

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