WASHINGTON — It’s not every day you see F-16 fighter jets tailing an unmanned runaway military blimp that leaves a trail of destruction in its wake.
But that’s exactly what people saw when a giant balloon — dubbed the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System — or JLENS for short — broke free from its mooring station at Maryland’s Aberdeen Proving Ground on Oct. 28.
The $2.7 billion tethered aerostat, which is intended to safeguard the nation’s airspace along the East Coast against cruise missiles and other aerial threats, aimlessly drifted northward for more than 120 miles while disrupting civil aviation traffic and knocking out power for tens of thousands until it came to rest in rural Pennsylvania.
Raytheon, a major U.S. defense contractor, designed the aerial surveillance system. According to the company’s website, the likelihood of its tether breaking was very slim because “the tether is made of Vectran,” a man-made fiber that its manufacturer says is five times stronger than steel.
Now a source of national hilarity and scrutiny, the balloon fiasco has persuaded lawmakers to reevaluate the military program’s worth, even as the Army conducts an investigation into what exactly happened on that Wednesday afternoon.
“The investigation to the unmooring that took place last month is still ongoing,” said Lt. Col. Tom Crosson, a Pentagon spokesman. “They have all sorts of experts that are involved with this. The engineers, both on the Army side and from Raytheon, are participating and they’re going to go through everything with a fine-toothed comb to find out what happened.”
Raytheon officials declined to discuss the investigation.
But some members of Congress are pressing the Pentagon for details on the effectiveness of the glitch-prone program.
Reps. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, chairman, and Elijah Cummings, D-Baltimore, ranking minority member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform sent letters to Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx a day after the debacle. In their letters, they explicitly requested documents that would justify the program as a “worthwhile investment of taxpayer dollars.”
Among the documents the panel requested were any Pentagon reports on the reliability of the JLENS system and testing results so far.
Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-Timonium, has been a proponent of the program.
When the Army selected Aberdeen Proving Ground, which is part of his district, as the base for the aerostats, Ruppersberger released a statement detailing that the “over-the-horizon surveillance test will generate about 140 jobs for (the) region.”
After the four-hour odyssey in late October, Ruppersberger, who sits on the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, announced that the Pentagon’s decision to suspend the missile defense system until the Army completed a thorough investigation was “the right decision.”
“It is an unfortunate irony that a program designed to help safeguard the skies over the nation’s capital threatened the security of citizens on the ground, including in my district,” said Ruppersberger.
“While I strongly believe the capabilities that JLENS provides for the defense of Maryland and the national capital region against low-trajectory missiles from enemies such as ISIS and other terror groups are critical, civilian safety must come first,” Ruppersberger added.
The aerostat at Aberdeen is part of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD)’s three-year operational exercise which is supposed to end in 2017. This test would determine if the military surveillance system could protect the nation.
“The…exercise is an opportunity to see how well JLENS can fit into the existing Integrated Air Defense System,” said Adm. Bill Gortney, the commander of NORAD and U.S. Northern Command (USNORTHCOM).
“If the investigation results indicate resumption of the operational exercise is warranted, we will work with the Army and the (Defense) Department to review the way forward for the JLENS exercise in support of cruise missile defense capabilities of the National Capital Region,” Gortney added.
The Project on Government Oversight (POGO), a nonpartisan watchdog that investigates corruption and monitors federal spending, sees the blimp-borne radar as incapable and unwarranted.
“What do the taxpayers have to show for their money other than some priceless pictures? One would expect an extensive net of these radar systems ringing the country,” POGO said in an article written last month. “The Army had plans to purchase 28 blimps for that exact purpose. But for all the time and money spent on the program, the American people has just one working system. Well, we had one working system, until half of it floated away.”
And this isn’t even the first time JLENS has raised the eyebrows of lawmakers after failing to protect American airspaces. Last spring, a postal worker flew his one-person aircraft through Washington’s most restricted airspaces and landed on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol.
Shortly after this gyrocopter incident, Chaffetz blasted authorities at a congressional briefing.
“You got a dude in a gyrocopter, 100 feet in the air, crossing 30-plus miles of restricted airspace,” Chaffetz said. “Whose job is it to detect him and whose job is it to take him down?”