By the end of the year, there will likely be two giant Army blimps hovering 10,000 feet above Baltimore with the ability to see 340 miles in any direction.
Most forms of surveillance have weaknesses: If they’re ground-based, they have range limitations. Predator drones have to refuel and don’t have the ability to hover in one spot. Helicopters are really loud and generally have to fly pretty low. That’s where JLENS comes in. It’s a giant, 243-foot long blimp that’s tethered to the ground. It has ridiculously powerful radar and cameras. It pretty much doesn’t have to move, and it only has to land once a month or so for quick maintenance.
Yes, that means the entire mid-Atlantic region will, at least, have the potential to be under “persistent surveillance,” a dream term for those in the intelligence biz and a worst-case scenario for those who care a lick about privacy. One aerostat that was tested in Utah last year was able to follow individual vehicles “dozens of miles away” and watch a test subject plant a fake bomb on the side of the road. According to the Washington Post, the Army has “no current plans” to use that high-powered video sensor in Maryland, but wouldn’t rule out using it in the future.
Rumors of the Army buying a JLENS from Raytheon to put in Aberdeen, Maryland, have been swirling for a couple years now—earlier this year, Timothy Carey, then-Vice President for Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance with Raytheon told me that “it depends on the day of the week” as to whether the Army wanted to go ahead and purchase one. Well, it seems they’ve made up their mind. They’re reportedly buying two blimps at a cost of roughly $2.7 billion—one will use a long-range radar and the other will use a higher-frequency radar to help target threats.
Even at $2.7 billion, the system is much cheaper than running constant Predator drones or having other manned surveillance aircraft fly in circles all day. There's still no exact date for when the blimps will start operating, and a collision in which a separate airship crashed into a JLENS last fall has delayed the program.
JLENS, at least in theory, isn’t meant to spy on everyday citizens. It’s a military aircraft that’s supposed to spot things like incoming enemy fighter jets and missiles long before ground-based radar can. It’s meant to be paired with Patriot Missiles to do things like shoot nukes out of the air. It can spot incoming missiles or aircrafts up to 340 miles out and can track vehicles on the ground up to 140 miles away, meaning its effective ground vision area is 62,000 miles. Raytheon envisioned it as something that could sit on an army base in, say, Iraq or Afghanistan to allow the military to spot threats many miles away.
“You can keep it up for virtually a month or so at a time with very little maintenance,” Carey said. “You wouldn’t have them positioned anywhere close to the front lines because they have the capability to see deep and aren’t great at moving.”
But with its capabilities, it certainly can also be used at home for persistent surveillance on not-so-nearby people.
“I don’t care how good of a radar you have, if you put it on the ground and you’re trying to detect targets flying close to the earth, you’re not going to see them in time,” Carey said. “When you elevate the sensor, clearly you can see further out, you can detect things further out.”
JLENS also doesn’t have to focus on just one target at a time. According to Raytheon, it can “track hundreds of airborne and surface moving threats, in 360 degrees.” And it’ll be flying full time by the end of the year.