Radar ‘Blimps’ to Monitor Washington-area Skies

Aerostat BalloonThe first of two radar-detecting blimps is slated to rise up over Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland on Friday as part of a three-year exercise testing the integration of an Army air surveillance system with the North American Aerospace Defense Command.

The 80-yard long, radar-fitted surveillance balloons, floated to an altitude of up to 10,000 feet, are intended to pinpoint beyond-the-horizon targets such as incoming enemy missiles, aircraft or drones.

A second balloon, technically aerostats because they’re tethered and do not float or maneuver independently in the sky, is expected to go up by the end of January.

One of the two is engineered with VHF radar technology capable of scanning outward to a distance of about 500 kilometers, a Raytheon official and director of the Army’s Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System, JLENS, told Defense Tech in June.

The radar scans 360-degrees and is designed to identify targets or areas of interest for the second aerostat, which uses more precise X-band radar, Douglas Burgess said.

NORAD, which announced the Friday launch last week, said data collected during the operational exercise will be used to determine how well JLENS capabilities work with the existing NORAD security architecture.

“This will enable senior defense officials to support a determination whether to transition JLENS capabilities to an enduring mission at the conclusion of the three-year operational exercise,” the announcement said.

Writing about the program in DefenseOne on Tuesday, technology editor Peter Tucker suggests the Defense Department’s air security focus may be more on drone threats these days than anything else.

He notes that a “hobbyist and activist” netted a warning from federal officials to keep his drones out of DC skies after a near miss involving one of his camera-toting devices.

While many who see a giant blimp may automatically recall ancient film images of the Hindenburg’s fiery crash in New Jersey, the JLENS systems are a whole different kind of balloon.

“They are filled with helium and air, which are inert gases that do not burn,” NORAD stated. “In 35 years of testing, a tether break has never occurred.  During the exercise, great care is being taken to protect [Aberdeen’s] sensitive wetlands, flora and fauna – in particular the bald and golden eagles – both during site construction and during the exercise. “

Privacy advocates will be happy to know that – according to NORAD – the surveillance balloons are not equipped with spy gear.

“The JLENS aerostats cannot see people and do not have cameras onboard,” NORAD said.

About the Author

Bryant Jordan
Bryant Jordan is a reporter for Military.com. He can be reached at bryant.jordan@military.com. Follow him on Twitter at @BryantJordan.
  • SwissFreek

    Yeah, I’m sure that guy and his flying GoPro is why the military is expending millions of dollars to put up an aerostat. It even crashed itself! What a safe country we live in that we can afford to worry about such things. As an aside, I don’t see what classifies that as a near-miss. With what, the ground?

  • Brian B. Mulholland

    Interesting that one aerostat searches in the VHF band. Are we preparing to be able to locate LO aircraft?

    • ltcjwb

      The lower the frequency, the longer the range through adverse weather conditions. Aside from that, with the possible exception of the electronics, these seem to be the same Aerostats that have been deployed along our Southern border for some time now. I understand that they were to be taken out of service due to cost to the Air Force. Why the Air Force was manning them, I don’t know.

      • Dfens

        I believe the short answer is, yes.

      • Doug Ellsworth

        The Air Force does not man the Aerostat sites. The contracts for the sites are/were managed by the Air Force.

  • Doc

    Macy’s want to borrow one next thanksgiving.
    Does NORAD still do Santa reports?
    Better check the nose for excessive IR emission, Rudolph.

  • Richard Christiansen

    The article states, ““In 35 years of testing, a tether break has never occurred.”
    I worked with one down in Panama and Honduras back in the mid 1980’s, and the tech guys assigned to the project said one had broken tether in Florida and that it took 2 fully armed F-14’s to put enough holes in it to start it descending and heading for the Atlantic Ocean floor.

    Read more: https://www.defensetech.org/2014/12/16/radar-blimps-to

    • Tom

      So we should believe a story told to you by some tech guys……2 “fully armed” F-14s you say… right. Did they also try to sell you a bridge in NY after you believed that story?

    • Doug Ellsworth

      Aerostats in the TARS program have broken free from tethers, but the Aerostats in the JLENS program have not.

  • dubweiser101

    Oh the humanity!

  • Batou

    Is America on the retreat with technology - first the Space Shuttle program gets can for the “Enhance Gemini Project” - ooops, sorry - the Orion (a Gemini on steroids) project.
    Now a return to Blimps which are even less technical than the Zeppelins of pre-war Germany. WTF!

    • steve

      Your comment shows a complete lack of knowledge. First of all, it is not a Zeppelin filled with hydrogen, it’s a blimp, full of helium, no internal framing. It’s unmanned and can stay up there for long periods of time, it’s actually a really efficient way to get a radar in the air. Secondly, comparing the shuttle to the Orion spacecraft is laughable. The shuttle was an overly-complex and expensive way to reach low-orbit. The Orion is designed for Deep Space, which the shuttle was totally incapable of. The Orion is a major step forward. Now get back under your bridge.

      • Dfens

        Hey, Mr, Knowledge, did you read the part where he said, “a return to Blimps which are even less technical than the Zeppelins” or did you just not understand that part?

        • blight_weroasdfl

          Not sure why having internal framing is deemed “[more] technical”. Chronologically, rigid airships came before blimps. I imagine internal framing adds weight, but I’m not sure what the advantages are. 3/4 of the early rigid airships met an untimely end (Shenandoah, Akron, Macon). The TC-class blimp was contemporary to the rigid airships and was used for parasite aircraft experiments. The rigid airships were much bigger than subsequent blimps though, so it’s possible that internal framing enables the deployment of much larger vehicles? Navy G, L, K, M class blimps with a post-WW2 N-class were much smaller.

  • bart hooliman

    Privacy advocates will be happy to know that – according to NORAD – the surveillance balloons are not equipped with spy gear.

    “The JLENS aerostats cannot see people and do not have cameras onboard,” NORAD said.

    I call BS. There may be no spy gear now but there will be. Our government is more scared of its own population than any foreign threat.

    • rtsy

      No doubt they are testing all variety of surveillance gear with these blimps, but this specific project, with two VHF blimps right by the ocean, looks more like a testing range for Americas stealth aircraft.

  • john

    I dont think the chinese will bother copying this move.Hey ma look at the crazy crither!.

  • AKO

    The financialization of the American economy

    American De-Industrialization
    Continues Unabated

    America’s economic elite has long argued that the country does not need an industrial base. The economies in states such as California and Michigan that have lost their industrial base, however, belie that claim. Without an industrial base, an increase in consumer spending, which pulled the country out of past recessions, will not put Americans back to work. Without an industrial base, the nation’s trade deficit will continue to grow. Without an industrial base, stranded in low-paying service-sector jobs. Without an industrial base, the United States will be increasingly dependent on foreign manufacturers even for its key military technology.

    Deindustrialization led to rising costs for weapons development

    The U.S. is becoming dependent on countries such as UK, Russia, France and Germany for critical weapons technology.

  • Dfens

    What, there aren’t enough military airplanes in the air to defend our nation? Hmm, seems to me like what we really need to do is close some more bases and retire more airplanes in favor of more weapons development programs that offer the “for profit” corporations that run them $1.10 for every $1.00 they spend. Not that they’d ever try to drag out or jack up the cost of a program with a contract like that. No, these “for profit” companies would never spend themselves rich, even if it was clear their contract with the government encouraged them to do that very thing.

  • JDC

    Aerostats are old technology and shouldn’t be hard to integrate into the surveillance picture. In the days when we actually cared about border security, we had a line of then across the Southern border looking for small a/c smuggling drugs and other stuff across. When I was assigned to the Joint EW Center in San Antonio in 89-91, we did radar coverage modeling to optimize their positioning.

    The big drawback to Aerostats is that they often have to be hauled down due to environmental concerns (wind, lightning, snow and ice). When winds get too high, they have to be deflated, which can be expensive in terms of helium and manpower requirements.

    The “plus” side of them is that they are a good way to get persistent surveillance.in an area.

    • Dfens

      On the “minus” side, those cables can sure f up a commercial airplane if it flies into them. Not like the airspace over Washington DC is some of the densest in the world. Oh wait, yes, it’s just like that.

      • @Avnrulz

        That’s why they file NOTAMS when they are up.

        • Doug Ellsworth

          The airspace around the Aerostat is restricted below 15,000 ft. It is documented on all charts.

          • Dfens

            I feel safer already.

  • Bobby

    Never broke free… uh huh… so forgetful people can be. http://www.kvoa.com/news/winds-take-down-an-aeros…

  • radargeek

    The X-band radar is for GMTI, not aircraft tracking. It’s the same STARLite unit that the Predator flies with. (Obviously SAR mode won’t work on a stationary aerostat, so it’ll just be for GMTI mode)

    • Curt

      Although the article does an incredibly bad job of explaining the program, the X-Band radar is for missile engagement. The whole purpose of JLENS was to elevate the radars so Patriot batteries could detect low altitude contacts earlier and engage cruise missiles over the horizon with the X-band radar providing target illumination for the TVM. Although it can be used for other purposes, it is for missile engagement.

      • radargeek

        Oh, okay, I was thinking of PTDS. Similar aircraft, different radar.

  • JohnD

    We had these similar items in Iraq, detecting incoming rockets and observation! Little,risk of life but good coverage!

  • Craigpv2d

    X-band can be used for many things besides GMTI. If the government wants to track us on the ground, they can do it now with drones, regular aircraft, (E-8), etc. The issue here is cost of operation. If they tether these things in already prohibited airspace a collision with a civilian aircraft shouldn’t be a problem. I’m sure that this blimp will also have a TCAS transponder as well as an IFF transponder.

  • taylor

    big bro lives!

  • Old_Signal_Corps

    There was at least one instance of an aerostat breaking tether in Iraq. IIRC, it floated away from either Mosul or Kirkuk, came down in Turkey, and they were NOT pleased. They are definitely “multi-mission”, and you can hang just about anything (cameras, FLIR, cell site, jammimg equipment).


    “They are filled with helium and air, which are inert gases that do not burn,” NORAD stated. “In 35 years of testing, a tether break has never occurred. During the exercise, great care is being taken to protect [Aberdeen’s] sensitive wetlands, flora and fauna – in particular the bald and golden eagles – both during site construction and during the exercise. “

    They claim to never have had a tether break during testing…this might or might not be true…but we sure did have enough tether breaks over numerous FOB’s during my numerous deployments to Iraq…

  • Daniel Adkins

    Is not the mission for these blimps to be able to identify and target cruise missiles? That seams logical.

    Another aspect is that these blimps eliminates the claim against off shore windmills which would block the radars at Patuxent. If we want secure defense facilities and off shore wind energy, maybe we need both.

  • F SMith

    Sliding back… In the 60’s we had Radar from Newfoundland to Florida all along the coast with 700NM ranges..

    All those sites are gone now…. All we spin for the most part is IFF and some piss poor Dopplers.. In the age of Drones and high speed skimmers Space Based Radar is the only thing that makes sense

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