Pentagon’s Multi-Billion Dollar Radar Blimps Can’t Track Targets

© AP Photo / Patrick SemanskyNORAD's Air Force Col. Chuck Douglass walks in front of an unmanned aerostat that is part of a new U.S. military cruise-missile defense system during a media preview, Wednesday, Dec. 17, 2014, in Middle River, Md. Military officials said a pair of helium-filled aerostats stationed in Maryland are intended provide early detection of cruise missiles over a large swath of the East Coast, from Norfolk, Va., to upstate New York, during a three-year test. JLENS, short for Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System, will be fully implemented this winter.
NORAD's Air Force Col. Chuck Douglass walks in front of an unmanned aerostat that is part of a new U.S. military cruise-missile defense system during a media preview, Wednesday, Dec. 17, 2014, in Middle River, Md. Military officials said a pair of helium-filled aerostats stationed in Maryland are intended provide early detection of cruise missiles over a large swath of the East Coast, from Norfolk, Va., to upstate New York, during a three-year test. JLENS, short for Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System, will be fully implemented this winter. - Sputnik International
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The Pentagon’s JLENS program caused massive embarrassment when one of the $1 billion surveillance balloons broke loose in Maryland in October 2015. A new report has revealed more bad news: the expensive radar blimps aren’t effective.

The $2.7 billion Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System (JLENS) is meant to track and monitor incoming cruise missiles or low-flying aircraft along America’s east coast. Consisting of two large blimps, JLENS relies on sophisticated onboard radar equipment.

While defense giant Raytheon has been developing a state-of-the-art ground control system for the Pentagon’s GPS satellites, a top commander has called the company’s effort “a disaster. - Sputnik International
US Air Force General Blasts Raytheon’s 'Disaster' GPS Control System

But tests carried out by the US Army reveal that the blimps may not be effective at identifying potential airborne threats.

The error is traced to faulty software that "could result in some high priority radar targets not being processed and tracked," the report reads.

In particular, the radar systems have a difficult time identifying friendly aircraft from hostile airborne objects, especially when analyzing multiple objects at once.

Of course, the blimp hardware also suffers from faults, most notably, its mooring system.

Last October, a single balloon representing one-half of the JLENS program broke free of its mooring in Maryland, and a pair of F-16 fighter jets were sent in pursuit. The blimp destroyed itself by eventually settling near a school in Pennsylvania, but not without knocking out power for roughly 21,000 people.

Part of an unmanned Army surveillance blimp hangs off a group of trees after crash landing near Muncy, Pa. - Sputnik International
Runaway Surveillance Blimp is Probably Bad for Blimp-Making Business

The costly program faced heavy criticism even before the October 2015 incident, but owes its continued existence to the highly-profitable lobbying of entities involved in the development and manufacture of the product.

"The JLENS workers will be buying homes, shopping in our grocery stores and eating in our restaurants," Maryland Representative Dutch Ruppersberger wrote in a press release soon after it was announced that his district would host one of the blimps.

Political contributions from Raytheon, the blimp manufacturer, also play a part. Since 1999, the company has donated $1.6 million, through its political action committee and employee contributions to various Congressional campaigns.

Ruppersberger has received $91,250 from Raytheon since 2002, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

These political realities make it unlikely that the latest report will have any effect on the expensive and broken JLENS program.

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