Army’s Giant Surveillance Blimp to Start Tracking Objects in DC Region

While Congress debates the merits of spending tens of millions of dollars to add missile interceptors on the East Coast while increasing the number already in place out West, a long-running developmental Army radar system is packing up and heading for Maryland.

From May 4 to June 14, Raytheon’s JLENS, or Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System, was put through its paces by about 100 soldiers during user assessment tests out in Utah, but the company announced today that the 74-foot-high tethered airship is now headed to the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland for a more ambitious operational assessment run by the US Northern Command.

The soldiers who were trained up to use the system in Utah will make the trip with the airship, but since JLENS will be running on a 24/7 basis once on the East Coast—and tracking anything that flies, drives, or floats near the National Capital Region—more soldiers will be trained to operate it before the assessments kick off in 2014.

“In essence, the testing itself on the system is compete” Doug Burgess JLENS program director said on July 24, though the Army and NORTHCOM want to continue to stress the system before making any final decisions on buying it.

The Army has been working on the idea of a tethered aerostat since the late 1990s, but Raytheon won the bid to actually design and build the system in 2005. As its currently configured, JLENS can reach an altitude of 10,000 feet and stay aloft for 30 days at a stretch, and its 360 degree sensor package can scan the air, land, and sea for up to 340 miles.

The JLENS program was scaled back radically in the FY13 defense budget, as the Army said that it would build just two JLENS orbits instead of the 16 it originally wanted.


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Paul McLeary

McLeary covers national security policies at the White House, Pentagon, the Hill, and State Department.
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