Earlier today the U.S. Army’s JLENS radar blimp broke loose, and it’s currently floating somewhere over Pennsylvania with fighter jets in tow. It’s a sad, comical development for a program that showed much promise but has lately become yet another costly defense boondoggle. From the Foxtrot Alpha archives, here’s how the damn thing was supposed to work.
It may look like a pregnant blimp, but it packs one hell of a radar system. The Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor (JLENS) is an aerostat that can haul powerful radars and communications systems up to its perch at 10,000 feet, for weeks at a time. Which is exactly what it is about to do over the National Capitol Region.
Update 10/2015: It’s worth noting that since this story originally ran in 2014, the JLENS program has been criticized as an expensive, underperforming “zombie” program. Here’s how it was supposed to work.
The JLENS system is actually made up of two 74 meter aerostats, each packing a different radar system. One being a VHF-band long-range surveillance radar, which is JLENS’ primary system, and the other being a sensitive X-band fire-control radar, which has shorter range than its surveillance cousin, but it can gather and transmit incredibly detailed telemetry on a target for possible engagement.
The surveillance radar can be used without its fire control radar companion, but in some cases, especially those where targets are detected at long-range, engagement quality targeting data would have to be obtained by other sensors, such as ground radar or a fighter jet’s radar. A fairly elaborate and semi-mobile ground mooring station accompanies each aerostat, along with a single communications processing group and its associated ground support equipment. A crew of four to six people operate JLENS at any given time.
JLENS’s primary mission is to provide 360 degree, over-the-horizon radar coverage (with a range of about 350 miles in any direction) for hard to detect and low-flying enemy cruise missiles, aircraft, and UAVS. Its secondary mission, and one that the system has proven to be better at than anticipated, is tracking ballistic missiles, artillery rockets, movements of ground vehicles, ships and especially small boats.
Although about three billion dollars have been spent on JLENS over its decade and a half development cycle, and it has always been close to cancellation, with the program reduced to from 16 ‘orbits’ (full systems) to just a two developmental orbits, it could offer remarkable potential once it proves itself operationally.
Basically, JLENS does the job of an airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft, such as the E-2 Hawkeye or the E-3 Sentry, along with some of the capabilities found in the E-8 JSTARs and a littoral surveillance radar equipped P-8 Poseidon, in one relatively cheap and highly persistent package. The main difference being is that JLENS is for defensive operations more than offensive ones, and that it can stay airborne for weeks, not just hours at a time.