The U.S. Army’s spying blimps cost $2.78 billion


It looks like a giant white blimp floating high above I-95 in Maryland, perhaps en route to a football game somewhere along the bustling Eastern Seaboard. But its mission has nothing to do with sports and everything to do with war.

The aerostat — that is the term for lighter-than-air craft that are tethered to the ground — are to be set aloft on Army-owned land about 45 miles northeast of Washington, near Aberdeen Proving Ground, for a three-year test slated to start in October. From a vantage of 10,000 feet, they will cast a vast radar net from Raleigh, N.C., to Boston and out to Lake Erie, with the goal of detecting cruise missiles or enemy aircraft so they could be intercepted before reaching the capital.

But these blimps are hardly innocuous: While technically unarmed, the aerostats (a fancy word for a tethered blimp) are equipped with a fire-control radar system that provides coordinates to defense networks on the ground that can then mitigate (blow up) any threats. Just call them bubble drones.

A recent Raytheon press release touts the distinct ability to do so:

“Despite heavy smoke from recent, naturally-occurring forest fires, an MTS-B electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) sensor mounted on a JLENS surveillance aerostat tracked numerous targets with the IR sensor. Video from the MTS-B was passed through the aerostat’s tether, enabling operators to watch live feed of trucks, trains and cars from dozens of miles away. While the MTS-B visually tracked targets, the JLENS simultaneously tracked surface targets with its integrated radar system.”

In other words, a JLENS aerostat equipped with MTS-B (Multi-Spectral Targeting System) can successfully monitor multiple cars and trucks at long range. Through the billowing black smoke of a massive forest fire. But can it monitor people?

EPIC has received substantial new information about the surveillance blimps, now deployed over Washington, DC.

In 2007 the plan was to develop the surveillance technology and produce 32 of the blimps for about $6 billion. 

The US GAO tables its “Assessments of Selected Weapon Programs. Which is actually a review for 2013, plus time to compile and publish. With respect to JLENS, the total program cost now sits at $2.78212 billion, which is almost all R&D except for $40.51 million in military construction.

“In August 2013, the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics approved the program’s revised acquisition program baseline, re-designated the program’s acquisition category and delegated milestone decision authority to the Secretary of the Army. The JLENS program satisfied developmental testing and evaluation requirements and is proceeding with plans to execute a 3-year operational combatant command exercise…. Site construction for the deployment of the exercise will begin at Aberdeen Proving Ground after the February 2014 construction contract award. The construction will involve completing aerostat pads, roads, operation and support facilities, and infrastructure. The initial system is expected to arrive at the exercise site location in June 2014 and initial capability delivery is expected for the surveillance radar in September 2014 and the fire control radar system in December 2014.”

Defense contractor Raytheon last year touted an exercise in which it outfitted the aerostats planned for deployment in suburban Baltimore with one of the company’s most powerful high-altitude surveillance systems, capable of spotting individual people and vehicles from a distance of many miles.

JLENS, which is short for Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System, is a system of two aerostats, or tethered airships, that float 10,000 feet in the air. The helium filled aerostats, each nearly as long as a football field, carry powerful radars that can protect a territory roughly the size of Texas from airborne threats.”

The Army said it has “no current plans” to mount such cameras or infrared sensors on the aerostats or to share information with federal, state or local law enforcement, but it declined to rule out either possibility. The radar system that is planned for the aerostats will be capable of monitoring the movement of trains, boats and cars, the Army said.

The prospect of military-grade tracking technology floating above suburban Baltimore — along one of the East Coast’s busiest travel corridors — has sparked privacy concerns at a time of rising worry about the growth of government eavesdropping in the dozen years since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

“That’s the kind of massive persistent surveillance we’ve always been concerned about withdrones,” said Jay Stanley, a privacy expert for the American Civil Liberties Union. “It’s part of this trend we’ve seen since 9/11, which is the turning inward of all of these surveillance technologies.”

In January 2012, the FY 2013 budget proposal called for the cancellation for JLENS’ production phase. The 2 existing systems would remain, to be used for further testing and trialed in exercises, but funding would begin to taper off rapidly after 2013. Recent budgets have included:

FY 2008: $464.9 million, all Research, Development, Testing & Evaluation (RDT&E)
FY 2009: $355.3 million, all RDT&E
FY 2010: $317.1 million all RDT&E
FY 2011: $399.5 million, all RDT&E
FY 2012: $327.3 million, all RDT&E
FY 2013 request: $190.4 million, all RDT&E. This was actually a $34 million increase, to fund the Secretary of Defense directed COCOM Exercise extended test program.

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