Massive blimps over Maryland to conduct 24/7 domestic aerial surveillance

Around October 1, people in Maryland will wonder what are those two huge objects in the sky? It’s a bird; it’s a plane; it’s a . . . pair of high-dollar blimps capable of conducting surveillance 24/7 without blinking or sleeping, staying aloft for 30 days in a row, because the military and Raytheon say, “The threat is real.”

JLENS aerostat airship aka surveillance blimp

Officials don’t flat out say the terrorist threat, but they mention threats like anti-ship cruise missiles, drones with 10-foot wing spans, tactical ballistic missiles, large caliber rockets, and moving surface vehicles like swarming boats, mine-laying ships, automobiles and tanks. Marc Rotenberg executive director of The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) believes the threat is real all right, the threat to privacy that is. He said, "When the government is conducting real-time aerial surveillance within the United States, there are privacy issues that need to be addressed."

While officials claimed that, on a clear day, people in downtown Baltimore will be able to see the unmanned blimps from 16 – 19 miles away, one of the two 243-foot long blimps will have 360-degree surveillance capabilities allowing it to see up to 340 miles in any direction; that one is on the lookout for “threats,” while the second blimp carries a powerful integrated fire-control radar system “to detect, track and target a variety of threats.” Together, the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System – quite a mouthful that was shortened to JLENS –

Raytheon calls the JLENS blimps “a system of two aerostats, or tethered airships,” which “float 10,000 feet in the air.” The JLENS system, “referred to as an orbit,” has two tethered aerostats connected to mobile mooring stations that are about almost two miles apart. The tethers have high-speed fiber optic cables for sending data, but the aerostats can also communicate via radio links. There is also a “communications, control data and signal processing station.”

While explaining why the Army’s [pdf] JLENS system “is not your grandpa’s barrage balloon,” Major Thomas J. Atkins told the Air Defense Artillery magazine:

The [2] aerostats are unmanned, tethered, non-rigid aerodynamic structures filled with a helium/air mix. The aerostats are 77 yards long (three-fourths of a football field) and almost as wide as a football field. The aerostats must be large enough to lift the heavy [volume search or fire control] radars that provide the system’s extended range. The radars are optimized for their separate, specific functions, but weigh several tons each. 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.

JLENS system concept, 4 main components

The two aerostats are connected to the ground via tethers through which power and data is transmitted. 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. 

After the surveillance blimp tells the fire-control radar blimp about threats, it “can pass on target information using a network known as Link 16, a system shared by U.S. ships, aircraft, and ground forces. Link 16 provides a secure, jam-resistant data link.” Popular Mechanics explained potential weapons the JLENS system could unleash: Raytheon's Small Diameter Bomb II, a “208-pound weapon made to attack mobile targets; it also uses Link 16.”

SDB II has an advanced seeker system with three different modes. The weapon uses laser guidance for situations where the target can be illuminated with a laser designator. Otherwise it has a millimeter-wave radar and an imaging infrared sensor that allow it to detect targets through cloud, smoke, and darkness.

The winged SDB II can glide for more than 45 miles, all the while receiving updates via Link 16. This allows it to drop into a "basket," the small area containing the target. The SDB II‘s onboard sensors then precisely locate the target and lock on to it. The SDB II's memory contains a catalog of target types, Raytheon says, so it can distinguish a small attack boat from a nearby fishing vessel. 

Why do the folks in charge believe we “need” JLENS? It all goes back to a 2002 classified war game dubbed Millennium Challenge. “The Red Team, commanded by Lt. Gen. Paul Van Riper, sent waves of small boats, some loaded with explosives, to overwhelm the defenses of the Blue Team, representing the U.S. Navy. The results were grim. Blue Team lost 16 major warships—including a carrier.”

Cost = $4.1 billion so far

We are to believe JLENS is cost effective. Raytheon, the creator of JLENS, said, “One JLENS orbit can provide the same 24/7 coverage for a 30-day period that 4-5 fixed wing surveillance aircraft can provide. Depending on the kind of aircraft used, a fixed-wing surveillance aircraft is 500-700% more expensive to operate than a JLENS” and JLENS “uses less than 50% of the manpower.”

Raytheon explaining JLENS is affordable

One JLENS was previously destroyed in a “major blimp collision” blamed on “severe weather.” Army spokesman Dan O'Boyle told Inside the Army, “A Skyship 600 airship -- unrelated to the JLENS program – ‘broke free from its mooring tower and collided with a JLENS aerostat,’ destroying both vehicles.” The accident extended the development phase of the JLENS program at a cost of $168 million with $15 million as the cost for the destroyed Skyship 600. In all, Raytheon received a $1.4 billion Army contract for the project in 2007, with another $2.7 billion budgeted for research development, test and evaluation. Only $4.1 billion so far for JLENS . . . wow, what a bargain for tax payers.

Starting in October, the Raytheon surveillance system [pdf] is coming to the Army’s Aberdeen Proving Ground, along with 100 troops and 30 civilians. “Officials are planning a three-year exercise to assess the system's effectiveness for defense against cruise missiles and other low-altitude threats in the National Capital Region.” There is some debate about the Oct. 1 starting date, but Air Force Maj. Jamie Humphries said, "We want people to know about this when we put it up for the first time."

During tests previously conducted in Utah, JLENS shot down drones, defeated cruise missiles, tracked ballistic missile targets and a simulated “swarming-boat” attack. JLENS also "was able to follow vehicles 'dozens of miles away' as well as collect video of a test participant planting a fake roadside bomb. The Army says it has 'no current plans' to use this sensor in the Aberdeen test.”

It’s unknown if Maryland residents will welcome the unwavering 24/7 stare of surveillance because “the [terrorism] threat is real,” or if they will feel like their privacy is being invaded by yet another type of government-sponsored domestic surveillance.

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