Pentagon suspends troubled missile defense system at center of ‘runaway blimp’
By DAVID WILLMAN | Tribune Washington Bureau (Tribune News Service) | Published: November 3, 2015
WASHINGTON (Tribune News Service) — The Pentagon has suspended indefinitely an “operational exercise” of the troubled missile defense system called JLENS, whose giant, radar-carrying blimps were intended to help safeguard the skies over Washington.
Any decision over whether to resume the exercise will wait until after the Army’s Combat Readiness Center completes an investigation into how one of the pilotless blimps broke away from its mooring station last week at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md., military officials said Tuesday.
“It’s going to be a complete and thorough investigation, and it takes time,” said Army spokesman Dov Schwartz.
Army Major Beth R. Smith, speaking on behalf of the North American Air Defense Command, said, “Future actions regarding the JLENS exercise will be made following the conclusion of the investigation.”
The operational exercise — featuring two JLENS blimps, floating up to 10,000 feet high and scanning for cruise missiles or other low-flying enemy threats — was to begin as of January 2015. But problems, notably with computer software for the system, delayed the launch of a required second blimp until mid-August.
The breaking away of the JLENS blimp Oct. 28 became fodder for national media coverage, provoking fresh questions about the worth of the program, which has cost taxpayers more than $2.7 billion. The blimp rode the winds for about four hours over Maryland and Pennsylvania, dragging a 6,700-foot-long cable behind it. The cable clipped power lines, leaving thousands of people without electricity and disrupting civil aviation. Two F-16 fighter jets were scrambled to track the blimp before it came to rest on the outskirts of Moreland Township, Pa., more than 120 miles from its base.
At a time when lawmakers of both parties are seeking to trim $5 billion from President Barack Obama’s proposed $612 billion budget for the next fiscal year, senior Democrats on the House Armed Services Committee are, for the first time, openly assailing any further spending on JLENS.
“What we need is an unbiased investigation into JLENS incompetence,” Rep. Jim Cooper of Tennessee, the committee’s most senior Democrat, said in a statement to the Los Angeles Times. “We should defend the U.S. from low-flying threats, but this seems a stupid way to do it.”
When Cooper questioned Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, about the status of JLENS in a private meeting of members and staff Monday afternoon, Thornberry made clear that Republicans still backed the system, according to Democratic aides who attended. A spokesman for Thornberry, Claude Chafin, confirmed the exchange.
Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., another member of the committee, said in a statement: “As we cut $5 billion from the defense budget this week JLENS should be the first thing to go, but inexplicably Republicans decided it wasn’t worth eliminating. Now is the perfect time to get rid of a ‘zombie program’ that doesn’t provide an advantage over aircraft that we’ve already bought.”
Speier, referring in her statement to disclosures made in a Sept. 24 Times report, also noted the pivotal role played by the nation’s then-No. 2 military officer in saving the program after senior Army officials had tried to kill it in 2010.
Marine Corps Gen. James E. “Hoss” Cartwright, then vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, sought to save JLENS’ defense, arguing that it held promise for enhancing the nation’s air defenses.
At Cartwright’s prodding, money was found in 2011 for a trial run of the technology — officially, an “operational exercise” — in the skies above Washington.
Cartwright retired the same year — and joined Raytheon’s board of directors five months later. As of the end of 2014, Raytheon, the Pentagon’s prime contractor for JLENS, had paid him more than $828,000 in cash and stock for serving as a director, Securities and Exchange Commission records show.
Speier called Cartwright’s prompt transition “an egregious example of the corrupting nature of the revolving door for military generals who then go on to serve on defense contractor boards.”
JLENS is short for Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System.
The blimps are designed to operate in pairs. One searches widely for threats. The other is supposed to focus narrowly on airborne objects and transmit “fire control” data on their location, speed and trajectory. U.S. fighter jets or ground-based rockets would use the fire-control data to intercept and destroy an intruder.
At the blimps’ maximum altitude of 10,000 feet, the radar they carry is supposed to be able to see 340 miles in any direction, far beyond the limits that the curvature of the Earth imposes on land- or sea-based radar.
The Los Angeles Times investigation published in September found that in tests, JLENS has struggled to track flying objects and to distinguish friendly aircraft from threatening ones. Among other problems, software glitches have hobbled its ability to communicate with the nation’s air-defense networks.
A 2012 report by the Pentagon’s Operational Test and Evaluation office faulted the system in four “critical performance areas” and rated its reliability as “poor.” A year later, in its most recent assessment, the agency again cited serious deficiencies and said JLENS had “low system reliability.”
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