Government watchdogs were reeling Wednesday as the House approved an additional $45 billion for the Defense Department in 2016 and 2017 — on the same day the military lost a $2.7 billion unmanned surveillance blimp, which went on a marauding journey across Maryland and Pennsylvania.
The blimp broke loose from the U.S. Army’s Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland and drifted north, dragging its tether into power lines and knocking out electricity to at least 30,000 customers in Pennsylvania.
It was pursued by two F-16 fighter jets for more than three hours before it was grounded. The blimp had been slowly losing helium and deflating until it descended to the ground, according to the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD).
“The ironic thing about all this is when Congress should be debating whether the Pentagon is properly using the money it already has, they’re not asking that question and just increasing spending,” said Mandy Smithberger, director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Project On Government Oversight.
The blimp, which is 243 feet long, is one of a pair that comprise the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System (JLENS). Similar aircraft have been used extensively for surveillance in support of U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The JLENS’ twin aerostats can scan a radius of more than 300 miles. They were deployed over Maryland to provide early warning and targeting of low-flying airborne threats such as cruise missiles coming from the Atlantic.
The blimps or aerostats are designed to operate at altitudes of up to 10,000 feet and can stay aloft in winds of up to 70 knots (about 80 mph).
The JLENS program raised eyebrows because of its huge price tag and 17 years of development, and a resulting system that has been plagued by software glitches and poor performance in bad weather.
The Pentagon has come under increasing scrutiny over its spending, with its internal watchdog inspector general saying the Defense Department has become so overwhelming that it cannot be fully monitored.
But defense officials have still said they need more money, protesting the budget “sequesters” that have slashed tens of billions of dollars.
The bipartisan budget deal reached by Democratic and Republican leaders in Washington this week calls for an additional $30 billion in defense spending in 2016 and $15 billion in 2017.
Ms. Smithberger said the sequesters were supposed to force austerity on government agencies, but the Pentagon didn’t get the message.
“You are not going to see the reforms that need to happen at the Pentagon occur until you see some kind of fiscal discipline that is going to force the kind of trade offs that need to happen,” she said.
“The Defense Department is almost impossible to audit,” said Curtis Kalin of Citizens Against Government Waste. “To find ways that you are wasting money you have to find a way to audit the place and the Pentagon has resisted that for years.”
“I would say the blimp situation is quite ironic in that sense and pretty sad,” he said. “It just comes down to managing the things that they have properly and it is sad when they don’t because the defense of the country is quite important and money wasted in that name hurts the end goal of protecting the country.”