There Will Be No More Blimps Defending America

Gulf of Mexico oil spill
This military blimp is getting a time out. Photo: MC2 Drew Geraci/Corbis

The Pentagon is suspending its blimp-based missile defense program after three trial years, thanks to the new fear of runaway blimps — and the fact that the whole idea may be “stupid.”

The program, called JLENS (Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System), involves pairs of pilotless surveillance blimps tethered along the East Coast, keeping a lookout for any incoming cruise missiles headed toward Washington.

Last Wednesday, one of the blimps (or JLENS aerostats) broke free in Maryland. It drifted north, dragging a 6,700-foot cable along with it. The renegade aircraft caused more than 18,000 power outages before it was shot down in rural Pennsylvania. 

Until officials know how the blimp escaped from its station, the program will be suspended.

But aside from the risk of a blimp escape, JLENS is an expensive undertaking, with taxpayers paying at least $2.7 billion for the program during the course of its three-year run. At a time when lawmakers from both parties are trying to cut $5 billion from the proposed $612 billion defense budget, it doesn’t look like JLENS has a promising future.

The blimps also haven’t proven to be very good at distinguishing between threatening and friendly aircraft. A 2012 report by the Pentagon’s Operational Test and Evaluation office rated the program’s reliability as “poor,” and in 2013 the agency wrote that JLENS had “low system reliability.”

In other words, the Pentagon probably wants to add these mischievous blimps to the program that only trained “four or five” Syrian rebels and the really, really expensive gas station in Afghanistan on the list of things it would rather hide in a drawer and forget about forever. 

What we need is an unbiased investigation into JLENS incompetence,” Representative Jim Cooper of Tennessee, a Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, told the L.A. Times. “We should defend the U.S. from low-flying threats, but this seems a stupid way to do it.”