WASHINGTON — After an embarrassing incident last fall where the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System broke free in Maryland and floated into Pennsylvania dragging its mooring line, it appears the controversial surveillance blimp program will fly again.
Investigations into what happened that late October day are completed and JLENS' revival is being closely coordinated among organizations involved. The system will require putting together a new fire control aerostat, training personnel, implementing recommended changes and procedures, and more money, Maj. Beth Smith, a spokeswoman for U.S. Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, told Defense News.
JLENS broke free from its mooring station just outside of Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland, and traveled across Pennsylvania, causing several large power outages by hitting power lines with its long tether. The blimp required two F-16 fighter jets to escort it on its lumbering journey across the Pennsylvania countryside. The system finally deflated enough to fall out of the sky, landing slowly in a field. State troopers then fired on the blimp to get it to fully deflate.
The Raytheon-made JLENS system consists of both a fire-control system aerostat and a surveillance aerostat, and was undergoing a three-year operational exercise.
The system is capable of tracking swarming boats and vehicles, and detecting and tracking cruise missile threats. It can "see" all the way from Norfolk, Virginia, into Boston. The exercise was meant to decide JLENS' fate — whether to keep the system permanently moored in Maryland and whether the Army decides to buy more than just the two systems it now has.
The Army’s Combat Readiness Center and the Cruise Missile Defense System’s Joint Product Office concluded that JLENS didn’t escape due to one mistake or one single design flaw, but a combination of design, human error and procedural issues, Smith said.
Investigators found that the incident resulted from a loss of air pressure in the blimp’s tail fins, according to Smith, which was caused by "a malfunctioning pressure sensing device called a pitot tube." The loss of pressure caused the aerostat to become unstable in the air.
"The loss of aerodynamic efficiency along with increased wind drag exacerbated the tension on the aerostat’s tether to the point of breakage," Smith said.
The results of the investigation have been briefed up the military chain of command, including then-Defense Secretary Ash Carter, who concurred the JLENS should continue with its operational exercise.
"JLENS provides unique cruise-missile defense capability to our integrated air defense system for the National Capitol Region. It is in the best interest of the nation to continue the program. Investigators took a hard look at the causes of the incident, and I am confident that we have a plan of action to safely fly the aerostat again," Adm. Bill Gortney, commander of NORAD and NORTHCOM, said in a statement obtained by Defense News.
Now it’s up to Congress to decide what to do with JLENS. The system’s funding was cut by $30 million in the fiscal 2016 defense spending bill. The cut left the program with just $10.5 million. The cut was made due to a "test schedule delay."
President Barack Obama’s fiscal 2017 budget request released this week funds the JLENS program at $45.5 million for the combatant command exercise. The request also notes the Army intends to fund the program in fiscal 2018 at just $6.7 million when the exercise is supposedly slated to end.
The fiscal 2017 funding "provides new equipment training, execution of operations of the JLENS Exercise program in support of [NORAD/NORTHCOM] Operation Noble Eagle, and government program management support of the JLENS exercise," the request reads.
Funding will go toward reconstituting equipment damaged as the result of the accident and implementing corrective actions. Part of that includes reestablishing the only other existing JLENS system that has been in storage to allow "re-participation," the document states.
Jen Judson is an award-winning journalist covering land warfare for Defense News. She has also worked for Politico and Inside Defense. She holds a Master of Science degree in journalism from Boston University and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Kenyon College.