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Unmoored Military Blimp Exposes Problems With Surveillance Program


For a little while yesterday afternoon, if you were in certain parts of Central Pennsylvania or watching cable television, you would have seen a huge white blimp in the sky. It was a military surveillance blimp that broke loose from its mooring in Maryland. Its journey lasted three-and-a-half hours, and during that time, David Willman's phone was blowing up. That's because a few weeks ago, this LA Times reporter wrote an investigative piece into the blimp program. He says it has cost her nearly $3 billion so far. David Willman, thanks for taking our call.


SHAPIRO: OK. This airship is formally called the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System. They call it JLENS. Explain what it does.

WILLMAN: Well, it is intended to function in pairs. In other words, JLENS functions with two of these huge blimps, which are nearly 80 yards long each. They are tethered to the ground, ideally. And this exercise that is ongoing - is supposed to ongoing over the national capital region would have two of these blimps up in the air at altitude up to 10,000 feet.

And both have radars. One radar scans the skies widely. The other radar, once queued to a potential enemy target, for instance, has the ability to focus in with great power. And then, ideally, if, heaven forbid, there were some enemy attack going on, that second radar would then transmit information about the coordinates, the location, speed, projected trajectory of an enemy object to ground-base rockets or even fighter jets that could then fire ordinance and take out the attacker.

SHAPIRO: We saw evidence that this program wasn't working when, back in the spring, a Florida mail carrier landed his gyrocopter on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol. Congress held hearings. It was revealed that the blimps should have caught something like this and didn't. What's happened since then?

WILLMAN: Well, what happened on that day, of course, was that the gyrocopter came through some of the most highly restricted airspace in the United States and was not detected. JLENS, as it turned out, as the commander for NORAD admitted to a congressional committee a couple of weeks after that, was not operational on that day because the second blimp was not yet up in the air. What's happened since then is that it took until the end of August for Raytheon and the Army crew up at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md., to get the second blimp up in the sky. And what I have been told by military officials is that JLENS, through this period of time in October, remains in a testing, checkout and evaluation phase.

SHAPIRO: Raytheon being a defense contractor.


SHAPIRO: You spent so much time researching this story. What went through your head yesterday when you heard that one of these blimps was on the loose?

WILLMAN: I just thought, I guess, Ari, that, you know, here's another very sort of dramatic episode of visible failure in this program. Most of the failure with this program has been sort of not in the public's eye. In fact, we started our (unintelligible) article saying, unknown to most of the American public, this program has gobbled up $2.7 billion and has produced, really, nothing of value. In other words, you see news accounts even today saying that this is a key national security program. It certainly isn't. It's never been in operational mode. So beyond that, as to how this program continues to escape more critical scrutiny, we'll just have to stay tuned. It's a bit of an enigma.

SHAPIRO: That's David Willman, a reporter for the LA Times. Thanks very much.

WILLMAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.