WASHINGTON — The Army's runaway blimp's prospects of survival are looking grim as the House Armed Services Committee chairman's mark of the fiscal 2017 defense policy bill rolled out Friday with a punishing cut to the program.
Texas Republican Rep. Mac Thornberry's mark includes a drastic reduction in funding for the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor system (JLENS). The bill would fund the program at only $2.5 million. The Army's 2017 budget request asked for $45 million.
The lack of funding all but spells out the killing of the program, which comes as no surprise as congressional support for JLENS has taken a nosedive since the Raytheon-made tethered aerostat broke free from its mooring in Maryland and floated into Pennsylvania, dragging its tether and causing several power outages before it landed in a field and was deflated by state troopers who open fired at it.
The legendary incident last fall has caught much flak from lawmakers.
The Army supports continuing the program and tried to get additional funding to keep the aerostat, capable of tracking swarming boats and vehicles as well as cruise missiles, floating above Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland. The service asked for $27.2 million in a reprogramming document to continue the JLENS system's three-year operational exercise on track but was quickly shot down by the Senate Appropriations Committee. Congress cut most of JLENS' funding in 2016 too.
The lack of funding in 2016 means the Army has to store the system this year rather than continue its operational exercise meant to determine whether JLENS should be fielded and additional systems should be procured.
Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., who has long criticized the program as wasteful, said Friday, "This isn't the first time we've tried to kill this 'zombie program' — let's hope it stays dead this time."
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 in journalism from Boston University and a Bachelor of Arts from Kenyon College.