When you hear the word “blimp,” what’s the first image that comes to mind? For most of us, safe to say it’s the good ole’ Goodyear Blimp, floating over a sports stadium, providing beautiful, scenic birds-eye views for television broadcasts to use as they cut to commercial. Blimps are so cute, right?
Well, don’t let one of the new JLENS blimps hear you say that. That’s right, these blimps can hear you. And they can do a whole lot more than that…
Say hello to the United States’ latest form of defense: The Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System, or JLENS, made by Raytheon.
The way it works is, two 243-foot-long blimps float at a height of 10,000 feet: One carries a 360-degree surveillance radar that scans for any threat that may be on the horizon, and the other carries what’s called a “fire-control” surveillance radar, which can track moving targets.
The blimps, which are equipped with countless state-of-the-art audio and video surveillance devices, provide reconnaissance coverage of up to 340 miles away; roughly the distance between North Carolina and Boston! And it doesn’t matter if a threat were to come from the land, air or sea; JLENS sees all. The blimps can just as easily detect a boat 100 miles away as they can a truck on land or a low-flying UAV, aircraft or missile that thinks it’s staying stealth by flying below traditional radar systems (a tactic as old as radar itself, which JLENS now officially makes obsolete).
Although the project cost roughly an estimated $500 million – $2 billion, according to Raytheon, “the units will protect a city at 500-700 percent less than the cost to operate the reconnaissance planes necessary to maintain the same amount of coverage.” This is because traditional fixed-wing aircrafts require constant refueling and maintenance, whereas the JLENS blimps are low-maintenance and do not run on fuel, but rather a monthly fix of helium. The blimps can also carry a payload up to 4500 pounds, and can operate in the air for 30 days straight, 24/7.
Many claim though that the greatest benefit of the blimps are that they give us more warning time in the event of an attack or natural disaster, such as a forest fire or hurricane. The JLENS system turns what used to be seconds into minutes, allowing more time to both react to a threat and warn citizens who may potentially be in harms way.
Of course, with groundbreaking technology comes the speculation that harm and abuse will come from its’ use. Military representatives claim that JLENS will be used solely to monitor threats, and will not be used for ground surveillance. However, a recent Raytheon press release blatantly states that the units have the (exceptional) ability to do just that, describing one scenario where “operators observed ‘a terrorist role-player planting an improvised explosive device – in real time.’ But what happens to the thespian terrorist? Ka-boom. Our bubbly friend ‘provides long-range surveillance, target acquisition, tracking, range-finding and laser designation for the HELLFIRE missile and all tri-service and NATO laser-guided munitions.’ After locking on to a target, JLENS sends real-time coordinates through its elaborate, Kevlar-coated communications tethers, allowing missile defense systems on the ground to train their lasers on a target they can’t even see yet.”
Before we begin to see these blimps regularly floating around (and we will), they still are going through testing phases at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland. Once testing is complete, expect to see a JLENS system running continuously over Washington D.C starting next year.