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Army blimps headed to East Coast

Jul. 24, 2013 - 03:04PM   |  
A JLENS blimp undergoes testing in Utah.
A JLENS blimp undergoes testing in Utah. (Army)
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Old technology meets new as blimps bearing high-tech radars are bound for the East Coast next year as part of an Army experiment.

Successful tests of the Army’s anti-missile blimp system called JLENS at the Dugway Proving Grounds in Utah, completed in June, mean the two “aerostats” should next be stationed outside Baltimore and 10,000 feet up in the air, in September 2014, said Douglas Burgess of defense contractor Raytheon, which manages the program.

Originally designed to detect cruise missiles, the radars can detect light planes, drones, boats and vehicles on the ground. The goal in stationing the blimps on the East Coast next year is to test their radars in a high-traffic area in order to simulate their use in military situations where they might better warn of threats from the air, land or sea. At present, the experiment is solely an Army program and not supported by the Department of Homeland Security, which has oversight on watching for domestic terror threats.

“You have boats, planes, all kinds of traffic there; it should be a good test of the blimps,” Burgess said. “From the ground, radars are limited in their vantage, but up in the air you can see for tremendous distances.”

One blimp holds a wide-area radar, and the other holds a more precise radar with a more limited area of view. They can stay aloft for 30 days, connected to the ground by tethers for power, communications and to stay put. The twin blimps, each nearly the length of a football field, should be able to peer from New York to Norfolk from their perch, at the Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md., north of Baltimore. The June tests made sure Army operators could use the blimps to spot a variety of targets.

“I am a big fan of tethered aerostats,” said defense analyst John Pikeof GlobalSecurity.org. “They have been used for some time on the Mexican border and in the Caribbean, and in Iraq and Afghanistan, they are very persistent, and can carry a much larger payload” than a drone without using any fuel, he adds.

Although the blimps will be visible for roughly 30 miles from nearby highways, Burgess said motorists shouldn’t worry the radars will catch them speeding. “Radars can only read license plates in Will Smith movies,” Burgess said.

Pike has other worries about the blimps: “I am sure that no amount of advance publicity will avoid some folks seeing flying saucers,” Pike said.

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