The U.S. military has two giant, unmanned surveillance blimps it uses to watch the East Coast from a base in Maryland. And one of them escaped its tethers Wednesday and floated aimlessly over Pennsylvania, downing power lines and cutting off electricity for tens of thousands of residents.
The incident started shortly after noon, when the blimp became detached from its anchor, NORAD said. Two F-16 fighter jets were scrambled to ensure it didn’t collide with other aircraft. By late afternoon, the dirigible had come down to the ground near Moreland Township in Pennsylvania — after drifting more than 100 miles — but not before leaving a trail of damage in its wake.
It was unclear how the aerostat got loose and how it came down, said John Cornelio, a spokesman for NORAD. He added it was possible that the aerostat's helium could have run out.
The blimp wreaked plenty of havoc. Frederick Hunsinger, the public safety director for Columbia County, Pa., said in an interview that the blimp’s heavy tether dragged for 20 miles across his county. There were no injuries within county borders, but the damage caused 35,000 to lose electricity, he said. Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania canceled classes as a result; 911 phone lines were overwhelmed.Not to worry, though. This blimp is part of a $2.7 billion program meant to
“It was a lot of chaos, initially,” Hunsinger said. “It pulled down power lines and utility poles.”
Will Bunch observes:
Known as the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System, or JLENS, the blimp is technically an aerostat -- a term for a lighter-than-air craft that is tethered to the ground. The $2.7 billion program is on a three-year test run to see whether it can help detect cruise missiles or enemy aircraft from 10,000 feet above ground.
This type of craft has been used for surveillance by the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan. And while a listing blimp bumbling across Pennsylvania was a spectacle to behold, the incident is renewing questions among privacy advocates and others over why such powerful battlefield technology, developed by private companies, was brought back to the homeland.
The JLENS program “continues to drain money from taxpayers even though it serves no strategic purpose,” Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) said. “This incident is just another example of the problems inherent in an ill-conceived network of floating blimps that don’t provide any advantage over aircraft we’ve already bought.”
Oh, and it also probably sent $180 million of our tax dollars -- the cost of the errant blimp -- down the drain, unless someone knows the name of a decent blimp repair shop around these parts. And that's not the worst of it. It turns out that just last month, the Baltimore Sun wrote a remarkably prescient investigative story about this $2.7 billion (with a "b") military blimp program. and it sounds the biggest waste of government dollars since, well, a few dozen other wasteful military programs, but still...
The Army is testing giant high-tech blimps east of Baltimore to assess their ability to provide an early warning if the national capital area were attacked with cruise missiles, drones or other low-flying weapons.But after 17 years of research and $2.7 billion spent by the Pentagon, the system known as JLENS doesn't work as envisioned. The 240-foot-long, milk-white blimps, visible for miles around, have been hobbled by defective software, vulnerability to bad weather and poor reliability.In videos and news releases, Raytheon Co., the Pentagon's lead contractor for JLENS, has asserted that the system is "proven," "capable," "performing well right now" and "ready to deploy today."But JLENS is a stark example of what defense specialists call a "zombie" program: costly, ineffectual and seemingly impossible to kill.The Sun found that the JLENS program was plagued by software glitches, repeatedly flunked tests, was vulnerable to attack and struggled to detect the different between friendly aircraft and potential enemies. What's more, even if the high-tech system magically started working right. it would probably prove too costly for the government to deploy along our borders.
Other than that it was going pretty well.