The US Army had launched a second JLENS aerostat in Aug 2015 to increase cruise missile early warning coverage of the East Coast, joining one first launched in December 2014. However in Oct 2015, one of them got untethered from its base at Aberdeen Proving Ground, a U.S. Army facility 40 miles (65 km) northeast of Baltimore and wreaked havoc as it floated from Maryland into Pennsylvania while dragging more than a mile of cable and knocking out power to thousands.
NORAD spokesperson Michael Kucharek later said that two fighter jets were monitoring the blimp, and that various air traffic control stations were working to help keep track of it. The blimp, part of a $2.8 billion Army program, landed in a rural, wooded area in Exchange, Pennsylvania, a community outside Bloomsburg, about 150 miles (240 km) north of the Aberdeen Proving Ground.
These Raytheon-designed blimps, called the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor or JLENS, uses advanced sensor and networking technologies to provide persistent, 360-degree, wide-area surveillance and precision tracking of Cruise Missiles, Aircraft, Unmanned Air Vehicles, Tactical Ballistic Missiles, Large Caliber Rockets, and Surface Moving Targets.
The proliferation of cruise missiles and biological, chemical, or even nuclear agents, have created real security threat of U.S. cities coming under cruise missile attack from ships off the coast, according to Intelligence agencies and analysts
They shall also be useful for monitoring all air traffic, to detect Rogue aircraft, off-course aircraft and unidentified aircraft and reported to appropriate authorities for action they deem fit.
The JLENS System
The JLENS system consists of four main components: the aerostats, the radars, the mooring station and the processing station.
The aerostats are unmanned, tethered, non-rigid aerodynamic structures filled with a helium/air mix, 74 meters long, designed to float at 15,000 feet for up to a month, providing 342 miles of sensor range, far enough that it could cover a sizable chunk of the Gulf, including the strategic Strait of Hormuz waterway while defending against incoming missiles that could sink ships.
The tethers enables the aerostats to operate at altitudes of up to 15,000 feet and contain power lines, fiber-optic data lines and Kevlar strengthened strands surrounded by an insulated protective sleeve. . The tethers connect to mobile mooring stations that anchor the aerostats to the ground and control their deployment and retrieval. The mooring stations are connected to ground-mounted power plants and processing stations. The processing stations are the brains of the whole system. Each processing station contains an operator workstation, a flight-director control station, weather-monitoring equipment and a computer that controls radar functions and processes radar data.”
A JLENS system contains two radars: a fire control radar system and a wide-area surveillance radar system. The surveillance radar searches very long distances to find small radar cross-section tracks before they can threaten friendly assets. The fire control radar looks out at shorter ranges than the surveillance radar, but provides highly accurate data to help identify and classify tracks while providing fire control quality data to a variety of interceptors.
The information is distributed via joint service networks and provides fire control quality data to Surface-to-Air missile systems such as Army Patriot and Navy Aegis, increasing the weapons’ capabilities by allowing systems to engage targets normally below, outside, or beyond the surface-based weapons’ field of view. JLENS also provides fire control quality data to fighter aircraft, allowing them to engage hostile threats from extended ranges, and contributes to the development of a single integrated air picture.
JLENS takes 5 days to go from transport configuration to full deployment, or to pack up. Once deployed, Raytheon says that JLENS’ radar can detect and target threat objects at a range of up to 340 miles/ 550 km, depending on the object’s size and radar/ infrared signatures.
“JLENS is affordable because during a 30-day period, one system provides the warfighter the same around-the-clock coverage that it would normally take four or five fixed-wing surveillance aircraft to provide… JLENS is significantly less expensive to operate than a fixed-wing surveillance aircraft because it takes less than half the manpower to operate and has a negligible maintenance and fuel cost,” according to Raytheon.
JLENS were first proposed in 1998, when it was planned to deploy 14 pairs, for early warning and tracking of missiles.
It successfully demonstrated successful detection and tracking of an anti-ship cruise missile, through its fire-control radar, and then Cooperative Engagement Capability (CEC) was used to pass the data on to the firing ship. The missile used that targeting data to move into range of its own radar, found the target, and destroyed it with a Standard Missile-6 interceptor. A 2013 test confirmed the ability to track short-range ballistic missiles in their boost phase.
Program could not deliver its promises
The Oct 2015 accident is another one in the series of problems faced by the program, like overshooting of budget, delays, software bugs and untoward accident which destroyed the prototype when a commercial airship crashed into it, and led to a downsizing of the program from 14 pairs of blimps turned into two, which is expected to save $2 billion in costs.
Findings of Los Angeles Times investigation
These following findings emerged from a review of reports by the Pentagon testing office and the U.S. Government Accountability Office and from interviews with defense scientists and active and retired military officers.
• In tests, JLENS has struggled to track flying objects and to distinguish friendly aircraft from threatening ones.
• A 2012 report by the Pentagon’s Operational Test and Evaluation office faulted the system in four “critical performance areas” and rated its reliability as “poor.” A year later, in its most recent assessment, the agency again cited serious deficiencies and said JLENS had “low system reliability.”
• The system is designed to provide continuous air-defense surveillance for 30 days at a time, but had not managed to do so as of last month.
• Software glitches have hobbled its ability to communicate with the nation’s air-defense networks — a critical failing, given that JLENS’ main purpose is to alert U.S. forces to incoming threats.
• The massive, milk-white blimps can be grounded by bad weather and, if deployed in combat zones, would be especially vulnerable to enemy attack.
• Even if all those problems could be overcome, it would be prohibitively expensive to deploy enough of the airships to protect the United States along its borders and coasts.
Philip E. Coyle III, who oversaw assessments of dozens of major weapons systems as the Pentagon’s director of operational testing from 1994 to 2001, said “The cost of a blimp-borne radar network extensive enough to defend the nation against cruise missiles “would be enormous,” When you look at the full system — all the pieces that are required — that’s when it gets really daunting.”
The privacy advocates are wary of them because of their capability to carry cameras and other sensors to constantly monitor moving objects, including cars on the ground, identify individuals and record cell phone conversations. A privately-funded January 2013 test successfully demonstrated its ability to monitor humans walking near roads.