U.S. Army surveillance blimp destroyed in accident

Published 14 April 2011

The U.S. military wants to place powerful sensors on blimps, and have these blimps loiter the sky above the battlefield; the sensors, produced by Raytheon, will enable battlefield commanders to increase their wide-area protection against land-attack cruise missiles; last September, two blimps moored next to each other in the Elizabeth City, North Carolina manufacturing facility, collided after one of them almost got loose; the cost to the Army: $168 million

JLENS system mounted to it’s blimp // Source: al.com

The Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor (JLENS) is a tactical, theater-based, advanced sensor system. The system is carried on a blimp – or rather, on a tethered aerostats — to enable battlefield commanders to increase their wide-area protection against land-attack cruise missiles.

Raytheon says its JLENS provides the long endurance (up to thirty days on station), over-the-horizon detection and tracking capabilities required to defeat the proliferating cruise-missile threat. This cost-effective system complements fixed-wing assets and reduces the pace of aircrew missions. Its presence in the battle space allows reallocation of costly manned aircraft to support other critical missions. JLENS is a multi-mission system that contributes to the single integrated air picture and supports other secondary missions such as combat identification, communication relays and attack operations.

Now, Inside Defense reports that the U.S. Army lost one JLENS in an accident last year. This is how it happened: Columbia, Maryland-based TCOP, L.P., the manufacturer of the blimp, has a manufacturing facility near Elizabeth City, North Carolina. Last September, two aerostats were moored next to each other in the facility – but one of them nearly broke loose and crashed into the blimp moored nearby. The offending blimp was a Skuship 600 airship, which is not part of the military’s JLENS program.

Inside Defense reports that “Army officials consider JLENS a key component of the service’s surveillance sensor network for tracking enemy unmanned aerial vehicles and cruise missiles. The 74-meter tethered aerostat also has a role in ground surveillance. Its sensors can track moving targets and provide a ‘launch point estimate’ for tactical ballistic missiles and large-caliber rockets, according to the budget documents.”

The collision was not disclosed at the time, and came to light in a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on 29 March, a report which dealt with several weapon systems.

It is not clear what is the cost of the accident, but a clue may be found in the numbers associated with the extension of the manufacturing phase of the JLENS program. Inside defense concludes:

The accident has led program officials to extend the engineering and manufacturing development phase of the JLENS program, a fact that is noted but left unexplained in Army budget documents released earlier this year. The extension will cost an additional $168 million on top of $176 million originally planned for fiscal year 2012, according to the budget documents.

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