WASHINGTON — The US Army's tethered aerostat program with surveillance and cruise missile-detection capability that was just beginning a three-year operational exercise near Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland, is hanging by a thread after one blimp's high-profile detachment and crash last week.
One of the two aerostats that make up the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System (JLENS) broke free Oct. 28 from its mooring station near Baltimore and took a three-hour jaunt through the skies of Pennsylvania, finally landing in a wooded area in the northeast portion of the state.
The aerostat's tail broke off its body about a quarter mile from the blimp body's final resting place in a wooded glen, according to Capt. Matt Villa, the JLENS plans and coordination officer for the 263rd Army Air and Missile Defense Command, who was on the ground at the scene.
The blimp's trip over Pennsylvania was not without incident as it dragged 6,700 feet of tether – made of liquid crystal polymer-based fiber called Vectran – and caused several large power outages by knocking out power lines. At one point, the blimp reached a height of 15,000 feet, North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) spokesman Navy Capt. Scott Miller said.
While JLENS lumbered over the Keystone state, Twitter lit up with wisecracks over the escaped blimp and even NSA leaker Edward Snowden got in on the action.
But putting the jokes aside about a giant escaped blimp being trailed by armed F-16 fighter jets, the incident – said not to be weather-related – is an embarrassing one. Many are questioning whether such an expensive program that was nearly canceled before can survive such humiliation.
Many questions remain unanswered as the Army launches its investigation into what happened, from whether the downed aerostat can be repaired to whether this spells doom for the three-year operational exercise meant to determine the program's future.
The Raytheon-made JLENS system consists of both a fire-control aerostat and a surveillance aerostat. It is capable of tracking swarming boats and vehicles, and detecting and tracking cruise missile threats.
JLENS can "see" all the way from Norfolk, Virginia, into Boston. The exercise is meant to decide the program's fate — whether that is to keep the system permanently moored in Maryland and whether the Army decides to buy more than just two systems it now has.
The first JLENS aerostat, carrying a suite of surveillance sensors, was launched in December. The fire-control blimp launched just a few months ago over suburban Baltimore ahead of the start of the exercise. The fire-control aerostat is the one that escaped last week.
The future was once bright for JLENS, which cost over $2 billion to develop. Every combatant command wanted it urgently and the original idea was to deploy up to 12 systems in just the continental US to defend against cruise missiles and other threats.
JLENS is the only existing system in the Army inventory that can detect such missiles over a vast expanse of territory with unmatched persistence – capable of staying aloft for 30 days at a time, far longer than manned aircraft.
But the Army slashed its plan to buy 16 systems – which would amount to 32 aerostats – to just two systems several years ago. The move was projected to save the Army $2 billion. Raytheon and the Army, however, continued to successfully test and prove out the system at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico, and at the Utah Test and Training Range, even successfully tracking and defeating cruise missile threats when tied into US air and missile defense systems.
While JLENS was originally intended to be based within the U.S. Central Command, some saw opportunity for the Army to maintain its relevancy in the Asia Pacific region by deploying it there too. But some have said that deploying JLENS abroad was too much of an uphill battle with potential host countries over perceptions of large spy blimps looming in the sky.
The Army decided to keep JLENS in the US due to funding availability, choosing to run it through a lengthy operational exercise on the East Coast before deciding what to do next.
Following a series of extensive tests, the other system was put in storage.
The extent of the damage to the fire-control aerostat that crashed in Pennsylvania hasn't been estimated, according to Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis.
A centralized accident investigation team from the US Army Combat Readiness Center at Fort Rucker, Alabama, has started its investigation.
The team will likely look into the extent that the auto-deflation technology on the blimp functioned. The aerostat deflated slowly, but it's unclear whether it deflated for other reasons, NORAD's Miller said Wednesday.
And it was still a struggle to deflate it on the ground. NORAD spokesman Michael Kucharek said that after a consultation with recovery team experts, Pennsylvania troopers were authorized to shoot at the grounded blimp with shot guns to speed up the deflation process. He noted that despite reports to the contrary, no law enforcement agents, Army or National Guard ever shot at the blimp while it was still in the air.
Reports that the blimp dragged 6,700 feet of tether may indicate that its connection to the ground may have severed since the JLENS system can fly at 10,000 feet. The investigation will determine whether the tether broke or the aerostat completely unraveled from its winch.
It is still unclear if the Raytheon-made fire-control radar was damaged and whether it can be repaired or must be scrapped.
If the aerostat cannot be repaired, the Army will have to decide whether it takes its second fire-control aerostat out of storage for the operational exercise, if it can conduct an exercise using just the surveillance aerostat, or whether it will need to postpone or cancel the exercise.
The entire system, including the surveillance aerostat also tethered at Aberdeen, is now grounded as the investigation occurs.
One senior House staffer told Defense News that it follows that an incident like this – a major program failure in public – would lead to a reduction in funding for the exercise because it obviously won't be flying the damaged blimp for while, if ever. JLENS is currently funded at $40.6 million in fFiscal Year 2016.
"The fact that it became untethered is of major concern," Democratic Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin said. "It could have been much more damaging than it was. We need to know those answers," the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's ranking member, added. "I expect we will get an explanation of what happened, the vulnerabilities that led to this type of incident, and what we can do that – the cost issues, et cetera."
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, whose home state of Arizona is also where Raytheon's missiles systems sector is headquartered, said he thought the escaped JLENS aerostat was "great fodder for late night television," and added, "I think it was simply an error on the part of the crew, and somebody ought to be held responsible that it wasn't tied down properly."
Without JLENS conducting its operational exercise on the eastern seaboard, it leaves the homeland without robust or persistent protection against the cruise missile threat at a time when Russia is growing more and more antagonistic, according to Chet Nagle, a counterterrorism and covert operations expert, who was a naval aviator and worked for the CIA.
Nagle said that while JLENS has been scaled back over the years, Raytheon and the Army have still been able to prove out the system with great success in a wide range of tests. If the system is able to perform as well operationally as it did in testing, its capability and operational cost would be a game-changer for US forces, he said.
The added bonus is that during the exercise, JLENS would be providing cruise missile defense, strengthening a vulnerability in homeland defense, Nagle added.
Meanwhile, Villa said Friday the radar was taken out of the aerostat and a Pennsylvania National Guard CH-47 Chinook cargo helicopter sling-loaded the blimp out of the clearing and took it to a location where investigators could examine it.
Joe Gould contributed to this report.
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.