Pentagon Wants to Resume JLENS Exercise

March 2016

By Kingston Reif

The U.S. Army is asking Congress for additional funding to resume an exercise of a blimp-borne radar system designed to detect and track objects such as cruise missiles and other airborne threats despite a major malfunction last October.

Defense News last month quoted Adm. Bill Gortney, head of the North American Aerospace Defense Command and U.S. Northern Command, as saying that “[i]t is in the best interest of the nation to continue the program.”

“Investigators took a hard look at the causes of the incident, and I am confident that we have a plan of action to safely fly the aerostat again,” he added.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter concurred with the decision to resume the exercise, according to multiple news reports.

One of the two tethered blimps that make up the current test deployment of the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System (JLENS) detached from its mooring station near Baltimore last October, dragging 6,700 feet of cable for three hours before finally coming to rest. (See ACT, December 2015.)

At the time of the crash, the system was in the midst of a planned three-year exercise over the area around Washington. The exercise was designed to demonstrate the system’s capabilities for homeland defense and determine its future.

In the fiscal year 2016 omnibus appropriations bill, Congress slashed $30 million from the budget request of $40.6 million for JLENS in the wake of the crash. (See ACT, January/Feburary 2016.) reported on Feb. 17 that, in order to resume the exercise, the Defense Department is asking lawmakers to transfer an additional $27 million to the program for the remainder of the current fiscal year, which ends on Sept. 30. It is not clear where the additional funds will come from.

The Los Angeles Times reported on Feb. 14 that the blimp crashed because a device designed to automatically deflate it in the event of trouble failed to activate because batteries had not been installed as a power source.

Meanwhile, in a new report released in January, Michael Gilmore, the Pentagon’s director for operational test and evaluation, reiterated concerns he has raised in the past about whether JLENS can work as intended. The report identified numerous problems, including vulnerability to electronic interference, that could undermine the effectiveness and suitability of the ongoing exercise of the system.