How the Army' s $3 billion spy blimp went from boondoggle to laughingstock

http://www.politico.com/story/2015/10/defense-blimp-flying-loose-215272

<p>The Army made clear last year that its pair of massive spy blimps designed to float at 10,000 feet and scan the skies for air and missile threats would “be tethered to the ground at all times.”</p><p>But the service should have known not to make such a definitive assurance. Wednesday’s incident in which one of its pair of “aerostats” came loose at a base north of Baltimore isn’t the first time the Army has tried to get control of the runaway project.</p><p>In 2010, high winds caused a commercial blimp at a facility in North Carolina to “break loose,” as the Pentagon’s inspector general put it, crashing into an Army blimp and destroying it. That collision was just one in a series of mishaps for a $2.8 billion program that’s suffered from cost increases and performance issues and is now a national laughingstock as Twitter users and cable-news outlets marvel over how one became untethered — forcing the Pentagon to scramble two F-16 fighter jets and the FAA to reroute some airline flights before the large white dirigible came down in Pennsylvania farmland, taking down power lines with it.</p><p>The latest incident could be the death knell for the Raytheon-built Army spy blimps — formally called the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System, or JLENS — a program that was already on life support after years of problems. </p><p>The whole situation kind of speaks for itself,” a congressional aide who’s tracked the program closely offered in a candid assessment. “The program had a previous accident with another blimp that was destroyed due to bad weather, so a second incident would seem to suggest that ‘system reliability’ may be wee bit of a problem.”</p><p>The North American Aerospace Defense Command announced Wednesday one of its two JLENS systems tethered high above Maryland had “detached” from its mooring station at Aberdeen Proving Ground, an Army testing facility. The blimp drifted to Pennsylvania, before coming down in a rural county.</p><p>The embarrassing mishap was nearly two decades in the making.</p><p>The program dates back to 1996, when the military decided to try to build blimps nearly as long as a football field that could perform over-the-horizon surveillance and detect cruise missiles with sensors that stay aloft for 30 days, according to a fact sheet from the Federation of American Scientists. </p><p>Raytheon won the contract to develop the system in 1998.</p><p>The company declined to comment but boasts on its website that JLENS “provides 360-degrees of defensive radar coverage and can detect and track objects like missiles, and manned and unmanned aircraft from up to 340 miles away.”</p><p>However, the program quickly became a headache for the Pentagon. The military’s testing office found the blimps were suffering from “software and hardware reliability problems” and that the overall system had “low system reliability and availability.”</p><p>“While JLENS is intended to provide 24-hour coverage, weather can limit system availability and performance,” the testing office said.</p><p>In 2010, according to an <a href=”http://graphics.latimes.com/missile-defense-jlens/” target=”_blank”>investigation</a> by the Los Angeles Times, Army leaders sought to kill the program. But top Pentagon officials intervened — including then-Joint Chiefs Vice Chairman James Cartwright, who’s since made hundreds of thousands of dollars as a member of Raytheon’s board of directors.</p><p>Cartwright on Wednesday declined to comment.</p><p>Instead of killing the program, the Pentagon scaled it back. It decided to procure two of the blimps instead of 16. And the Army worked with NORAD to design a three-year exercise intended to inform future decisions about whether to continue the program.</p><p>The first blimp was launched over Maryland in last December — significantly behind schedule. </p><p>”The delay is not due to any technical problems with the system itself, but to ground construction issues and bad weather, Maj. Katrina Andrews, an Air Force spokeswoman told POLITICO at the time. </p><p>The second aerostat was launched this summer. </p><p>“This is obviously a situation where people in charge of the blimp did not carry out the proper procedures, which allowed it to become untethered,” said Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.). “I think the professionals that are supposed to care for it — they don’t look good.”</p><p><i>Jeremy Herb and Leigh Munsil contributed to this report.</i></p><br>

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