Army’s Aerostat Ready for Overseas Deployment


If a US combatant commander stationed somewhere around the globe feels that the one thing the command is missing is the ability to detect missiles, airplanes and drones hundreds of miles away, the US Army has just what they’re looking for.

Almost a decade after it first began development—and just two years after a 2012 Nunn McCurdy breach almost scuttled the program—the Army’s JLENS (Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System) aerostat has been placed in a “strategic reserve,” allowing it to be called upon if a combatant commander with the cash to operate it requests it.

The Army currently has two operationally ready JLENS systems, one in storage in the Utah desert awaiting an urgent call from a combatant commander, and the other preparing to head on a three-year operational assessment at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, where it will monitor air, sea, and ground traffic in the National Capital Region.

The Raytheon-built JLENS was slapped with the Nunn McCurdy breach in 2012 because the Army reduced the number of aerostats that it wanted to acquire form 16 to just two, driving the cost up significantly.

But after a few years of testing in the desert, the system has proven itself capable of handling most of what the Army threw at it. The tethered system can reach altitudes of about 10,000 feet and provides 360-degrees of radar coverage up to 340 miles away.

But the Nunn McCurdy tag continues to haunt the program. The funding cut for the program means that the system packed up awaiting the call in Utah lacks critical spare parts should something malfunction during a deployment.

And there is still some fiscal year 2015 budget wrangling to get through.

The White House request for JLENS in fiscal 2015 was $54 million, of which House appropriators took out a $25 million chunk in their markup that passed last week. In its last markup, the Senate funded it fully, but the Senate defense appropriations committee has yet to complete their markup of the bill.

If fully funded though, expect to see a giant white balloon hanging over the skies of Maryland – giving you one more reason not to speed while driving on the 95 North.



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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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