Meet The JLENS, The $3 Billion, Top Secret Blimp That Ran Amok Across PA

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Jonah Bennett Contributor
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Residents in Maryland and Pennsylvania were stunned to see a gigantic, helium-filled blimp rampaging through the countryside and taking down power lines Wednesday.

The bigger surprise to many residents is that the massive, 240-foot blimp is a controversial, $3 billion dollar military surveillance apparatus, The Associated Press reports.

Fortunately, no one was injured by the lumbering craft. But questions about the blimp itself remain.

“We just kind of scoffed that he had seen a bird or something, and he said, ‘No, look!’ and it was this blimp coming at us from the east,” Central Columbia High School teacher Jason Jarinko told The Associated Press, referring to a student who had spotted the craft while staring out the window. “As it got closer to us, all of a sudden our lights started to flicker and we lost power,” he said. “At first, we didn’t realize the two events were related.”

The blimp is called the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System, or JLENS for short. Designed by Raytheon, JLENS is meant to detect missiles and aircraft and is tethered to the ground while in operation by gigantic cables, which of course are supposed to prevent the blimp from floating away. When up as high as 10,000 feet in the air, it can transmit data through a series of wires. It can stay in the air for as long as 30 days.


This is what escaped (Getty Images)

Defense Secretary Ash Carter had one comment to make on the incident Wednesday.

“My understanding is, from having seen these break loose in Afghanistan on a number of occasions, we could get it to descend and then we’ll recover it and put it back up,” Defense Secretary Ash Carter said at the Pentagon. “This happens in bad weather.”

Nobody knows how the blimp broke off from its tether at the Aberdeen Proving Ground, and nobody knows why it landed on its own.


Controversial, $3 billion dollar surveillance craft designed by Raytheon (Wikimedia Commons)

NORAD immediately scrambled jets to track JLENS’ flight pattern.

A 2013 assessment conducted by the Office of Operational Test and Evaluation concluded that “system-level reliability is not meeting program growth goals” and also said that “the system does not meet the requirements for Operational Availability, Mean Time to Repair, or Mean Time Between System Abort.”

Privacy advocates have also complained about the craft’s surveillance capabilities, which prompted the Army to promise that no cameras would be added to JLENS to “observe surface moving targets” as tested by Raytheon.

Yet, a privacy group called the Electronic Privacy Information Center claims that the promise appeared in a document so heavily redacted that it’s impossible to tell whether the Army will stick by it. The center is currently in the middle of a suit against the government for more information on how the Army intends to use data collected by the craft.

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