One of the JLENS airships. (Image: Raytheon)
The Pentagon has suspended its multi-billion dollar trial blimp program outside of Washington, DC, after one of the blimps broke loose and floated around the country, The Los Angeles Times reports.
The rogue blimp, which eventually landed in Pennsylvania after being trailed by F-16 fighter jets from New Jersey, was part of the Army's trial JLENS program — Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor Systems — which was built and designed by Raytheon.
Before the blimp escaped, the JLENS program was taking part in a three-year operational exercise that was intended to determine the program's utility. However, following the escape, the Army has said that it will halt the program until it completes an investigation into what had happened.
"It's going to be a complete and thorough investigation, and it takes time," Army spokesman Dov Schwartz told The Times.
This suspension of the program was reiterated by Army Maj. Beth R. Smith — who said, on behalf of NORAD, that "[f]uture actions regarding the JLENS exercise will be made following the conclusion of the investigation."
The loose blimp caused major disturbances throughout the northeast of the US. The blimp had an estimated 6,700 feet of cable dangling from behind it. As the blimp slowly lowered toward the ground, the dangling tether knocked down power lines and caused power outages for more than 20,000 people.
The blimp also disrupted air traffic, necessitating the two trailing F-16s to update the FAA with the blimp's location.
Before breaking loose, the blimp was tethered alongside another JLENS airship in the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. The blimps were intended to be responsible for defending against possible cruise-missile attacks and other potential threats to Washington, DC, and other East Coast cities through the use of high-detailed radar imaging.
The two JLENS blimps were designed to operate in concert. One of them provides constant 360-degree scanning, covering a circular area from North Carolina to central Ohio to upstate New York, even as the blimp remains stationary over suburban Baltimore. The other focused on more specific targets. Together, the blimps were intended to track missiles, aircraft, and drones in a 340-mile radius.
As of the end of 2014, the JLENS project cost the government $2.8 billion. Congress had approved another $43.3 million for the first year of the JLENS operational test.
Despite the supposed capabilities of JLENS, the program had been plagued with roadblocks even before one of the blimps managed to escape.
According to a previous investigation by The Los Angeles Times, the blimps have faced such issues as being unable to distinguish friendly and threatening aircraft, being grounded by bad weather, and being incapable of providing continuous surveillance for 30-day periods.