- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 31, 2016

The Pentagon’s white, billowy, radar-crammed missile-defense blimp became an instant Internet meme when it went AWOL in October, slipping its mooring in Maryland and traversing nearly 100 miles on a romp through the Pennsylvania countryside before finally coming back to earth.

But the dogfight over the future of the troubled craft, known as an aerostat, is still being waged, with the Pentagon fighting a rearguard action to save the program in the face of assaults from budget cutters on Capitol Hill.

Many in Congress were not laughing at the blimp’s unauthorized jaunt, during which two F-16s were scrambled as its long mooring rope grazed rooftops and cut power lines.

The twin helium-filled balloons known as the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System (JLENS) were already on a short leash before theirs snapped.

After the incident, Congress cut the program’s funding from $40.5 million to $10.5 million in the 2016 budget. The Pentagon last month pushed lawmakers to divert some $27.5 million from other projects to repair the aerostats and keep a three-year trial program on track, a request denied by the Senate Appropriations Committee.

“There’s been broad concern in the committee about the pace of the program,” said committee spokesman Stephen Worley.

Those concerns, he said, only grew “when the balloon became untethered.”

Due to the budget cuts, the JLENS program will have to be shuttered until at least the next budget is passed. “The future of the program will depend upon obligated funds for [fiscal year 2017] and beyond being available and appropriated,” said Maj. Beth Smith, lead Department of Defense spokesperson for JLENS.

At least part of the requested money would go for a specific line item — stronger mooring cables.

Defense experts said Congress would be making a mistake of Hindenburgian proportions to deflate the balloons permanently.

The blimps, which come in pairs, are designed to detect hostile targets including cruise missiles, aircraft, ships, small boats and land vehicles. Their radars have a range of 340 miles in each direction, which allowed the blimps at Maryland’s Aberdeen Proving Grounds to cover much of the Eastern Seaboard and monitor for incoming missiles several hundred miles out to sea.

As the offensive capabilities of missiles continue to outstrip other defensive systems, former Department of Defense official Chet Nagle said, JLENS is increasingly indispensable to national security.

“The family of missiles that is arrayed around the world now is huge and growing more and more sophisticated, and our defenses are standing still,” Mr. Nagle said, pointing to purveyors of cruise missiles like Russia and China. “The problem for us is there’s no defense in the United States today against cruise missiles. Zero. Zip.

“Without the JLENS system operational, we’re naked,” he continued. “They should be not only on the Eastern sea coast, they should be on our other coasts.”

Michaela Dodge, a policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation’s Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, said there is a consensus among defense experts that the United States needs to “catch up as much as we can and stay ahead if we can” of rapidly innovating missile technology.

“I think one of the issues we have is that we don’t really have a good way to track cruise missiles. We don’t have a really good way currently to track these kinds of threats, and JLENS is a system that is already out there, that has been deployed. So I think it’s important not to leave that gap as we move forward,” Ms. Dodge said.

On the hot seat

But even before the October embarrassment, JLENS was on the hot seat. Notably, the aerostat failed to detect a 61-year-old Florida mailman who flew his gyrocopter through heavily restricted airspace over the heart of Washington, D.C., eventually landing on the West Lawn of the Capitol.

In congressional testimony following the incident, NORAD head Admiral William E. Gortney said the blimps, which were in the middle of a three-year trial period, were “not operational” on that day.

And an internal Defense Department assessment conducted in January but only released in March is giving critics more ammunition to shoot down the blimp program.

“System-level reliability, both software and hardware, is not meeting the program’s goals for reliability growth,” analysts at the Pentagon’s Operational Test and Evaluation Office wrote. Among the shortcomings identified: The tracking radar software in the blimps is missing “certain target sets,” and there have been problems “related to the timely passing of unambiguous radar target track information” to commanders at the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD.

Although Ms. Dodge acknowledged the seriousness of the system’s high-publicity failures, she said a culture that does not allow for mistakes in implementing new technologies threatens to stifle innovation.

“When you have an error in a system, you have to go back and fix it,” Ms. Dodge said. “I don’t think canceling the system is the right response, and the reason for that is we just don’t have any other system that can perform the same mission, that has the same capability.

“If you rid yourself of the single system that can do these things, without a substitute, without a follow-up, then you have nothing, and you’re worse off,” she continued. “Find the error, fix the error, and make it work. Preferably, you would plan on not putting all your eggs into one basket, but with the fiscal realities, that is not what we’re doing.”

For all its troubles, Adm. Gortney told Senate appropriators last month that JLENS “fills a gap, a capability gap that I do not have today.”

Although the blimps will remain decommissioned until new money can be found, President Obama’s proposed 2017 budget does include $45.5 million in funding for JLENS.

Mr. Nagle said the additional cost to keep the program running would be a tiny line item in the overall defense budget, but added that congressmen would have difficulty justifying the expenditure to their constituents.

“The amount of money that we’re talking about in the face of a budget that we’ve got up there is minuscule — it’s tiny,” he said. “But it’s optical, and if not for that October flyaway thing, nobody would know about JLENS.”

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