Missile-defense aerostat goes rogue, brought down in Pa.

Army NORAD aerostat

A helium-filled Army aerostat intended to help NORAD detect threats in East Coast airspace became something of a threat itself when it broke loose from Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md., Wednesday, causing power outages as its tether hit power lines as it drifted into Pennsylvania.

State police used shotguns to deflate the aerostat, which came down Thursday near Muncy, Pa., about 80 miles north of Harrisburg in the central part of the state, the Associated Press reported.

The blimp-like craft was put aloft in December as part of a three-year experiment to see whether aerostats could be integrated into NORAD’s air defense system.  The escaped aerostat was one of two being used as part of the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor, or JLENS, system.

Intended to hover at about 10,000 feet, it was equipped with cruise missile detection radar that, the Army said, would double the range of ground-based detection systems, reaching from upstate New York to just south of Norfolk, Va. Aberdeen Proving Ground is located north of Baltimore.

But even before the 240-foot long aerostat came loose from its mooring, the 17-year, $2.7 billion JLENS program had come in for criticism following an investigation by the Los Angeles Times and Baltimore Sun published in September. Among other things, the newspapers found that the aerostats had trouble tracking objects, distinguishing between friendly and enemy aircraft and had trouble communicating with air defense networks.

As well, the blimps reportedly had failed to provide continuous surveillance for 30 days at a time, as they were intended to do, and problems with the fire control radar had kept one of the aerostats ground for most of the year. The report described JLENS as a “‘zombie’ program: costly, ineffectual and seemingly impossible to kill.”

The program’s future might be up in the air now that the blimp has been grounded in two pieces. The ship’s tail section was to be removed Thursday afternoon, which the larger hull was still being deflated, the AP reported. The Army said it is investigating.

About the Author

Kevin McCaney is a former editor of Defense Systems and GCN.

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