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The JLENS: A Soaring Beacon for Military Reform

The JLENS aerostat tethered to the ground at Graces Quarters, part of Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md. Photo by

Fortunately no one was hurt when the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System (JLENS) aerostat balloon broke loose from its mooring at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland, at the end of last month. The snapped tether cable did cause some property damage and knocked out power for 30,000 residents of Pennsylvania, but that can all be repaired. So people are free to laugh at this latest blunder. Images of the runaway blimp floating north raced across social media faster than the blimp did across 160 miles of Maryland and Pennsylvania.

While a military balloon floating freely over rural America is unusual, nothing about the program is: the length of the development process, the massive expense, the dubious statements, and the political engineering are all-too typical. The JLENS program represents perfectly every over-inflated military program since World War II.

Most people had likely not heard about the Army’s JLENS program before the runaway blimp captured the public’s attention, but it has been underway for 17 years. The system is designed primarily to look for and track low-flying targets. That means it’s supposed to be able to track planes, helicopters, and land attack cruise missiles. Raytheon first won the $292 million contract to develop the program in January 1998. Reading through the timeline of the program’s development, one can see how the cost inflated through a series of modifications and negotiations:

By the time the aerostat floated away, the DoD had spent approximately $2.7 billion on the program. What exactly 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. 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.

The program already had a major failure earlier this year: a disgruntled former postal employee flew a gyrocopter low through miles of restricted airspace to land on the lawn of the Capitol Building, exactly the kind of threat JLENS is designed to detect. But even after all that time and money, the system was “not operational” that day. This latest incident has prompted renewed scrutiny on Capitol Hill. The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee has requested documents relating to the program to determine whether or not it is a wise investment of taxpayer dollars. Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) has called on the Army and the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) to investigate the latest incident thoroughly.

Under-Delivering Capabilities

According to Raytheon’s website, the JLENS can “detect and track objects like missiles, and manned and unmanned aircraft from up to 340 miles away.” The altitude the blimps achieve, 10,000 feet, provides far greater line-of-sight range than any ground-based radar system—by getting the sensors off the ground, they can see much farther. There are limits to how far they can see, though, and a check of the math involved calls into question Raytheon’s claims.

Figuring out the range of the system is a matter of trigonometry. The blimp flies at an altitude of 10,000 feet. So the line of sight to a cruise missile flying at 100 feet is less than 123 miles. There are several line of sight calculators online like this one that will confirm the arithmetic.

The math also doesn’t add up on another front. Officials briefed the Maryland Emergency Management Agency that the JLENS balloons are equipped with an “FAA-mandated Automatic Rapid Deflation Device” that would activate when the tether breaks. Emergency responders were told of the balloon, “once deflated it is on the ground in 245 seconds.” But instead of coming down in four minutes, the JLENS floated for three hours. It only deflated when Pennsylvania police officers pumped about 100 shotgun blasts into it.

Rather than performing as officials promised, the JLENS actually performed as an independent analysis predicted it would. The Federation of American Scientists said of the system in 1999: “The internal pressure of JLENS is about the same as the exterior pressure. This makes them extremely difficult to shoot down. These elevated sensors can absorb lots of punctures before they lose altitude. When they do, they come down so slowly that they can be reeled in, repaired easily, and sent right back up.” Even Raytheon says one of its balloons can “still float when it’s full of holes” on a website providing fun facts for the public.

Business as Usual

The JLENS program is now frequently dubbed as a “zombie” program because it just won’t die. Army leadership tried to cancel it in 2010 in favor of other systems to detect rockets, artillery, and mortars. Then-Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) estimated in his 2011 “Back in Black” deficit reduction plan the Army could save $5.8 billion by cancelling the JLENs program. Even with such efforts, the program survived, likely for two reasons: political engineering and the revolving door.

Raytheon has spread the work designing and building the JLENS across at least eight states, according to the LA Times. Several Members of Congress from both parties have a vested interest in protecting the program in order to ensure their districts receive more money and jobs. Representative “Dutch” Ruppersberger (D-MD) celebrated when he received word the JLENS would be deployed to his district, and touted the 140 jobs it would bring. The program received special attention during negotiations for this past year’s National Defense Authorization act when Senator Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) added a provision requiring the Army to brief Congress on options to deploy more systems around the world. Raytheon tests the JLENS its facility in Pelham, New Hampshire.

This is a common practice of defense contractors, often described as political engineering, a phrase first identified by Pentagon reformer Chuck Spinney. James Fallows, a respected author about Pentagon reform matters, defines political engineering as “the art of spreading a military project to as many congressional districts as possible, and thus maximizing the number of members of Congress who feel that if they cut off funding, they’d be hurting themselves.”

The infamous revolving door between the various elements of the military-industrial-congressional complex also appears to play a role in this story. The JLENS program survived Army attempts to kill it when the then-vice chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine General James Cartwright, came to its rescue. According to the LA Times investigation, the program would not have survived without his intervention. Within months of his retirement, Raytheon elected General Cartwright to its board of directors. He has since pocketed several hundred thousand dollars from the company.

While examples like that draw the most attention due to their high-level nature, the revolving door applies to all levels in the system. According to lobbying reports available online, Michael Khatchadurian, a lobbyist working for American Defense International, Inc., spent time with House Armed Services committee members Representative Jim Ryun (R-KS) and Representative Ander Crenshaw (R-FL) in “meetings with officials about JLENS program” in 2012. Mr. Khatchadurian served as Representative Ryun’s military legislative assistant from 1999-2001 and as Representative Crenshaw’s legislative director in 2001. He also worked as a public relations specialist for the Joint Chiefs of Staff before taking a position with the lobbying group in 2003.

The Future of JLENS

The Army quickly collected the wreckage of the blimp from the woods of Pennsylvania and vowed to undertake a thorough investigation. It has suspended the program until the investigation is complete. While this sounds like a prudent step, the Army had little choice in the matter: half of the working system is currently riddled with buckshot.

Still, the program lives on. Congress did not include the JLENS in the $5 billion it trimmed from the next defense budget. It is unclear what, if anything, can actually kill this program.