America’s Spy Blimps   Leave a comment

Last week a U.S. military blimp got loose of its anchor and caused havoc outside of Washington D.C. and into Pennsylvania. Its dragging 6,700 foot (2,000 m) tether reportedly downed many power lines in the area, with loss of electrical power to as many as 20,000 area residents. The blimp was a JLENS.  The Americans come up with the best acronyms for military hardware.


Al Hartmann  |  The Salt Lake Tribune Officials from Raytheon and U.S Army battery tour the JLENS a last time at Utah Test and Training Range Tuesday June 10.    The JLENS which is 74 meters long will be moved from Utah to the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland to integrate with NORAD.  Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune


The Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System, or JLENS is a tethered aerial detection system designed to track boats, ground vehicles, cruise missiles, manned and unmanned aircraft (airborne early warning and control), and other threats. The system has four primary components: two tethered aerostats which utilize a helium/air mix, armored mooring stations, sophisticated radars, and a processing station designed to communicate with anti-missile and other ground and airborne systems. Each system is referred to as an “orbit”, and two orbits have been built. The Army-led joint program is designed to complement fixed-wing surveillance aircraft, saving money on crew, fuel, maintenance and other costs, and give military commanders advance warning to make decisions and provide notification.




The system features two tethered aerostats, roughly 77 yards (70 m) in length, that float to an altitude of 10,000 feet (3,000 m) for up to 30 days at a time. Each aerostat utilizes a different radar system—one has a VHF-band surveillance radar and the other an X-band fire-control radar. JLENS is designed to provide 24/7, 360-degree coverage extending 340 miles (300 nmi; 550 km). The surveillance radar scans in all directions to pick up targets, then the targeting radar looks only in a certain segment to guide weapons to it. Its detection capability seeks to equal 4–5 fixed-wing aircraft, and is designed to operate at 15–20 percent of the cost of fixed-wing aircraft.

The tethered cables relay data and provide power. As threats are detected, information is sent to anti-missile and other fire-control systems including Patriot, Standard Missile 6, Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile, and the National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System. Its relatively low-power usage and over-the-horizon capability makes it less expensive to operate than existing fixed-wing systems and provides significantly greater range than ground-based systems.


A JLENS aerostat is seen on its mooring station at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.



These systems have a history of escaping.  Smaller aerostats were used in Iraq and Afghanistan to provide surveillance above bases and beyond.

Anyone watching from the ground in Afghanistan might have stared in astonishment at the strange battle that broke out overhead one day in 2011. A giant teardrop-shaped aerostat — 75 feet long — was speeding through the sky, out of control, carried by the furious wind. Suddenly, an F-16 fighter jet roared close and then opened fire, mangling the blimp-like dirigible, like blasting a football with a round of buckshot. Gradually, the aerostat slumped to the ground.

The $4 million surveillance platform and the F-16 were on the same side, of course, both belonging to American forces. But the Persistent Ground Surveillance System (PGSS), loaded with cameras and communications gear, had been ripped clear of its moorings and was on its way to wherever the weather took it.

And that was just one of two aerostats lost to a storm that day, according to a Central Command report.

The shootdown was a dramatic reminder of the fragility of the lighter-than-air reconnaissance platforms that have gained in popularity in recent years.




Aerostats emerged among the few winners of a five-year foray by the Defense Department in lighter-than-air craft. Lighter-than-air flight once seemed an antiquated concept, evoking zeppelins and hot-air balloons. But the technology has indeed advanced.

With two wars underway and defense budgets at all-time highs, the military launched 15 aerostat and airship programs that cost nearly $7 billion between 2007 and 2012, according to the GAO. Many of the programs, including giant unmanned spy blimps and ultra-high altitude airships, have since been abandoned as impractical. But the PGSS and the larger PTDS — Persistent Threat Detection System — have largely succeeded.

“These systems are very effective at what they do, and commanders rely heavily on their capabilities,” said Lt. Col. Michael Parodi, the Army’s product manager for meteorological and target identification capabilities.

By scanning large areas of terrain for enemy activity, the aerostats provide a clearer picture of potential threats, Parodi said.

Commanders have incorporated aerostats into many of their missions, using them to protect convoy routes, find roadside bombs — and sometimes the insurgents who plant them — and to provide a real-time perspective of engagements with the enemy, he said.


Aerostat on station near Kandahar, Afghanistan




Posted November 2, 2015 by markosun in Uncategorized

Tagged with , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: