Congress Is Right To Ground The Runaway Blimp

When the JLENS air surveillance blimp cut loose from its moorings in Maryland and crashed in central Pennsylvania last fall, it raised serious questions about the future of the $2.7 billion program. The system is meant to detect cruise missiles, drones, and other low flying aircraft before they can attack the nation's capital. But as David Willman noted in a piece in the Los Angeles Times last September, "Seventeen years after its birth, JLENS is a stark example of what defense specialists call a 'zombie' program: costly, ineffectual and seemingly impossible to kill."

The most recent annual report of the Pentagon's independent testing office found serious flaws in the JLENS program. The office asserted that the JLENS is not ready for prime time -- or, as expressed in Pentagon jargon, "system level reliability . . . is not meeting the program's goals for reliability growth." Even if the reliability problems could be fixed, the testing office further notes that the system design could result in "some high priority targets not being processed and tracked." Last but not least, when it does gather relevant information, JLENs is slow in passing it on to the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), the agency in charge of dealing with low-flying missiles or aircraft. So to sum up -- JLENS is not reliable, may not be able to track key targets, and is slow to transmit any useful information it does manage to gather.

The most embarrassing failure of the JLENS -- short for "Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System" -- came last April when it failed to notice the flight of a low-tech gyrocopter through 30 miles of restricted air space to a safe landing on the south lawn of the Capitol. Admiral William Gortney, head of NORAD, noted in a House hearing on the subject that after 17 years of development, the JLENS was still in testing mode and therefore "not operational" on the day the gyrocopter penetrated DC airspace.

The "zombie" status of the JLENS may be coming to an end. In May of this year the Senate Appropriations Committee voted to cut the program to $2.5 million from the $45 million the administration had requested. Other key committees made steep cuts in the program as well. Jen Hudson of Defense News has suggested that the lack of enthusiasm for financing the program has essentially "nailed the coffin shut" for the JLENS program.

The virtual de-funding of the JLENS came despite claims by Gen. Gortney that the JLENS was essential to defend against cruise missiles and that "we have a plan of action to safely fly the aerostat again." And at an event at the Center for Strategic and International Studies earlier this month, Col. Donnie Wilson, operations officer for the 263rd Army Air and Missile Defense Command, sang the praises of JLENS, despite the serious flaws noted above:

"I would tell you that JLENS was on a path to be very successful, short of the slight mechanical malfunction that happened . . . If JLENS is put back on schedule to complete its test I think it would be a major game changer."

So don't be surprised if NORAD takes another shot at saving the JLENS program, if not this year then after the November elections, when we have a new president and a new Congress. Congress should hold firm on its well-advised decision to kill the program. While they're at it, conferees on this year's Pentagon appropriations bill should go after other unnecessary programs that do nothing to defend the country and everything to protect special interests.

A coalition of 17 organizations from across the political spectrum has identified $38.6 billion in such savings, not only by ending the JLENS program but by eliminating funding for a new nuclear cruise missile, putting a hold on the troubled Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) program, and reducing the more than 600,000 service contractors now employed by the Pentagon. These kinds of common sense changes would eliminate the need to add $18 billion to the Pentagon budget, as House Armed Services Committee Chair Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-TX) and Senate Armed Services Committee Chair Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) have proposed. The JLENS decision should be a model for further Congressional action, not a lonely exception in a sea of unnecessary spending.