Blimpin' ain't easy

Today’s entertaining instance in which one of the two Aberdeen-based JLENS aerostats broke free of its mooring (a single mooring!) and flew to Pennsylvania, cutting power to at least one small town and causing F-16s to scramble in its wake, was kind of business as usual. 

Turns out the military’s surveillance aerostat programs lose expensive blimps all the time. In Afghanistan the Army once crashed 10 in one month—out of 100 total. 

There are only two 243-foot-long JLENS blimps so far (there are supposed to be many more, but the program is so over budget and behind schedule, these two are all they could muster so far). But smaller aerostats, 75 to 120 feet long, have been used for years in Iraq and Afghanistan to stand watch over military bases and track the doings of insurgents. Those programs cost about $5 billion—double what the JLENS program, which is supposed to offer “protection from a wide variety of threats to include manned and unmanned aircraft, cruise missiles, and surface moving targets like swarming boats and tanks,” has cost. 

The smaller aerostats have been taken down by lightning, helicopter blades, and occasional small-arms fire. But the wind has been the most consistent threat, as this 2013 report in Defense News shows.  

Writer William Matthews opens his piece with a runaway blimp, shadowed by an F-16 just as the JLENS is. “A giant teardrop-shaped aerostat—75 feet long—was speeding through the sky, out of control, carried by the furious wind. Suddenly, an F-16 fighter jet roared close and then opened fire, mangling the blimp-like dirigible, like blasting a football with a round of buckshot. Gradually, the aerostat slumped to the ground.” 

The story notes that these battlefield blimps are incredibly useful to soldiers, who can see people planting roadside bombs or other attacks: The Government Accountability Office "interviewed a ton of people, and everyone was saying pretty much the same thing—they are really valuable and really inexpensive compared to a UAV."

But when they get free—which is often—the blimps are a hazard, Matthews reported:

"They strafe the thing," which "tears it to shreds," said Arthur Gallegos, an assistant director at the Government Accountability Office in Denver. "At what point does it constitute government waste?"

The military says it never contemplated shooting down the JLENS, which has reportedly come down to earth in Pennsylvania.

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