Ground the Blimp to Nowhere

ABERDEEN, MD - DECEMBER 15:   In this handout from the U.S. Army, Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Se
ABERDEEN, MD - DECEMBER 15: In this handout from the U.S. Army, Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System (JLENS) personnel oversee the inflation of an aerostat at December 15, 2014. in Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland. According to reports October 28, 2015, an unmanned Army surveillance blimp broke loose from a ground tether at the Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland and is currently drifting over Pennsylvania. (Photo by U.S. Army Photo /Ronald Sellinger via Getty Images)

It was one of the most embarrassing episodes in the history of Pentagon procurement. Last October an air surveillance blimp, designed to help protect the DC area from an attack by enemy cruise missiles, broke free of its moorings and went on a three-hour joyride from its Maryland base until it finally crashed in a wooded area in northeast Pennsylvania. The blimp did plenty of damage along the way, as the cable that was supposed to hold it in place knocked out power lines and cut electricity to over 35,000 people. Two F-16s had to follow the blimp to make sure it didn't collide with a commercial aircraft.

This wasn't the first time the blimp, known as the JLENS, had run into trouble. As David Willman noted in a lengthy critique of the project in the Los Angeles Times, the blimp has been plagued by cost overruns and performance problems from the beginning. For example, a recent report noted that the JLENS was having trouble performing two of its most basic missions: tracking targets, and distinguishing friendly from potential enemy aircraft. And despite a promise of uninterrupted coverage, the system has never operated for more than 30 days at a time without a malfunction. Even if the blimps could be made to work, deploying enough of them to adequately defend the continental United States would be prohibitively expensive.

Back in 2010, things had gotten so bad that the Army tried to cancel the JLENS program, only to be rebuffed by a concerted lobbying campaign on the part of Raytheon and other contractors working on the project.

But last year's crash appeared to be the last straw, as key members of Congress like Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) threatened to end funding for the JLENS, which has already cost taxpayers a cool $2.7 billion. But the Army, backed up by U.S. Northern Command chief Adm. William Gortney, wanted to keep the program going. These plans were dealt a blow last week when, to his credit, House Armed Services Committee chair Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-TX) proposed amending the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) to end the JLENS program. But as Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) noted, "this isn't' the first time we've tried to kill this 'zombie program' - let's hope it stays dead this time."

Unfortunately, at the same time that Thornberry has proposed ending the JLENS program, he has suggested a shameless act of budgetary sleight of hand that could ultimately cost taxpayers billions in unnecessary spending. The gambit involves taking $18 billion from the war budget and using it to pay for pork barrel projects, including the purchase of 11 extra F-35s and 14 more F/A-18E/Fs than the Department of Defense asked for in its FY2017 budget request. The bulk of the funds will come from operations accounts, which are used to pay for essential activities like pilot training and equipment maintenance. This maneuver is particularly outrageous at a time when military leaders and members of Congress alike have been decrying a shortage of funding needed to ensure the safety and readiness of our troops.

The truth is, the JLENS project is just the tip of a very large iceberg. As a recent letter to Congress from 17 peace, government watchdog, and taxpayer responsibility groups noted, there is $38.6 billion in funding in the Pentagon's proposed base budget for FY2017 that can be cut without harming our security. Systems targeted for cuts include a new nuclear-armed cruise missile, a new ground-based ballistic missile, and the poorly performing, overpriced F-35 combat aircraft. In addition to eliminating unneeded weapons programs, the letter proposes a 15 percent cut in the over 600,000 service contractors now employed by the Pentagon, and the implementation of billions in cost-saving measures originally proposed by the Defense Business Board.

Implementing these proposed changes would make Rep. Thornberry's dubious budgetary shuffle unnecessary, resulting in a long overdue victory for budgetary discipline.

Rather than serving as an exception in a swamp of spending excess, the ending of the JLENS project should serve as a first step towards trimming other needless weapons programs and wasteful practices.