JLENS unmoored

Fighter jets chase runaway NORAD blimp

One of the two blimps designed to protect the mid-Atlantic region against airborne threats has broken loose from its tether and is drifting somewhere above Pennsylvania. The military has scrambled two F-16 fighter jets to track the runaway blimp, which had been moored at Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland under the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System or JLENS.

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According to the Baltimore Sun, the massive 243-foot long blimp detached around 11:54 a.m.

The North American Aerospace Defense Command reported the incident in a tweet: “JLENS aerostat detached from mooring station in Aberdeen Proving Grounds, MD. NORAD working interagency partners to address safe recovery.”  Such interagency partners include the Federal Aviation Administration, which is also tracking the blimp’s location. 

After 3 p.m. Eastern, NORAD tweeted the following update to the situation: “Update: JLENS aerostat drifting northward & has descended near the ground. Anyone seeing the aerostat notify law enforcement & remain clear.”

The two blimps, which were initially part of a three-year experiment in integrating aerostats into the NORAD air defense system, 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 the program has long been marred with problems. An investigation by the Los Angeles Times and Baltimore Sun found that:

  • 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.

About the Author

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

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