Like the offspring of the Great Eye of Sauron and the lovable Goodyear blimp, the JLENS aerostat carries systems that can surveil and track objects, like cruise missiles, in an area as large as Texas, staying aloft for up to 30 days.
The US Army announced that on Friday, North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) plans to launch a 250-foot tethered blimp, which carries the monitoring station, also known as the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System.
The system, built by Raytheon, trumps ground based radars that cannot look over the horizon and, the Army acknowledges, cannot detect all threats. It is meant to assist Norad’s surveillance of the east coast, including Washington, D.C., Baltimore and New York City.
To boot, it would be an expensive proposition to get 30 days out of manned fixed-wing surveillance aircraft, like an E-3 Sentry or E-2 Hawkeye — equipped with Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS). (Raytheon says it could cost five to seven times as much.)
That over-the-horizon capability means earlier detection, Army officials say, which could all the difference against a cruise missile.
“If I can detect this thing much further out, it gives commanders [more] time to get air assets into place and to alert people on the ground of the threat,” said Maj. Gen. Glenn Bramhall, commander, 263rd Army Air and Missile Defense Command, during a press briefing, Dec. 17. “If I can give a command four more minutes or five more minutes, that’s a lot of time.”
The launch is part of a three-year JLENS evaluation is to see how well it can integrate into existing NORAD detection systems. It has already showed it is effective at detecting cruise missiles at earlier tests in Utah, Army officials say.
Ahead of a launch from Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland, Army officials stressed that the system carries no weapons or cameras and will not impinge on the privacy of Beltway residents.
“I can’t stress enough: there are no cameras or video equipment onboard the JLENS system. Its radars cannot detect people,” said Capt. Matt Villa, JLENS plans and coordination officer.
So maybe not quite mystic eyeball-level threat detection after all?