They will look like two giant white blimps floating high above I-95 in Maryland, perhaps en route to a football game somewhere along the bustling Eastern Seaboard. But their mission will have nothing to do with sports and everything to do with war.
The aerostats — 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.
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.
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 aerostats planned for Maryland will have radar capable of detecting airborne objects from up to 340 miles away and vehicles on the surface from up to 140 miles away — as far south as Richmond, as far west as Cumberland, Md., and as far north as Staten Island. The Army declined to say what size vehicles can be sensed from those distances.
Aerostats — basically big balloons on strings — grew popular in Iraq and Afghanistan and also are used by Israel to monitor the Gaza Strip and by the United States to eye movement along southern border areas. Even a rifle shot through an aerostat will not bring it down, because the pressure of the helium inside nearly matches the pressure of the air outside, preventing rapid deflation.
The Defense Department spent nearly $7 billion on 15 different lighter-than-air systems between 2007 and 2012, with several suffering from technical problems, delays and unexpectedly high costs, the Government Accountability Office found in an October 2012 report .
The system planned for Maryland is called JLENS, short for Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System. The system has had setbacks, including rising costs and an accident in 2010 that damaged one of the aerostats at a facility in North Carolina.
A GAO report in March put the total development costs for JLENS at $2.7 billion. Once expected to provide 16 systems, each consisting of two aerostats and accompanying ground controls, only two of these systems have been built, the one scheduled to fly in Maryland and a second sitting in storage in Utah.
Raytheon, the prime contractor on the project, declined numerous interview requests about the JLENS system and, after requesting questions in writing, also declined to answer those.
The JLENS aerostats can stay in the air continuously for up to 30 days and have shown the ability in tests to track fast-moving objects in flight. The JLENS radar systems also can detect what security experts call “swarming boats,” the kind of small, agile watercraft that, when loaded with explosives, can threaten ships.
The aerostat system destined for use outside Baltimore has spent the past few years based at the Utah Test and Training Range, in the vast, parched salt flats west of Salt Lake City.
Residents of the area complained less about privacy issues than the militarization of the airspace. Testing of the JLENS involved small aircraft that raced through the sky, mimicking the flight of missiles. The radar systems were supposed to track them and help firing systems home in on the moving targets. The aerostats themselves were not armed.
The Army said similar tests will not be conducted while the aerostats are deployed in suburban Baltimore.
In a bid to demonstrate the long-term utility of JLENS to potential customers, Raytheon organized and paid for an exercise at a Utah test range in which it outfitted an aerostat with a spherical MTS-B sensor, often used by the Air Force and Customs and Border Protection to conduct overhead surveillance from drones. The exact capabilities of the MTS-B are classified, military officials said, but engineers familiar with the technology said its electro-optical and infrared sensors probably can detect individuals from more than 20 miles away.
For the Raytheon test, the MTS-B spotted a person pretending to be a terrorist planting an improvised roadside bomb, even though the view was obscured by smoke from a nearby forest fire, according to a Raytheon news release from January 2013. Operators could see live feeds of “trucks, trains and cars from dozens of miles away.”
The Army described the MTS-B test as “a contractor conducted demonstration” and said that only Raytheon could provide details. The company declined to do so, referring all questions to the Army.