Next week, residents in the Baltimore area will wake up to a major surprise: Two massive Army airships that will be visible from Interstate 95 for the next three years.
Tethered at the Army’s Aberdeen Proving Ground 25 miles northeast of Baltimore, the airships will quickly become an uncomfortable fact of life for Americans living in the Northeast. The massive airships, each about three times the size of a Goodyear blimp, are the latest in aerial surveillance.
The blimps, built by Raytheon and known as JLENS — Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defence Elevated Netted Sensor Systems — will defend against possible cruise missile attacks and other potential threats to Washington, DC and other East Coast cities through the use of extremely high-detailed radar imaging.
The two blimps will function in concert. One of them will provide 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 will focus on more specific targets. All together, JLENS will be able to track missiles, aircraft, and drones in a 340-mile radius.
Neither blimp will carry weapons. But the surveillance they provide would be relayed to air, ground, and ship-based weapons which would be used to intercept an incoming cruise missile.
Some worry that the airships could actually invade upon the privacy of people living under them.
“There’s something inherently suspect for the public to look up in the sky and see this surveillance device hanging there,” Ginger McCall, associate director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), told Dan Froomkin of The Intercept. “It’s the definition of persistent surveillance.”
Currently the JLENS has no optical or audio recording equipment; these tools are unnecessary for its main function. Moreover, as the JLENS currently operates, the blimps are incapable of being used to track individuals or provide useful material for invasive surveillance against citizens.
“Radars can tell that something is moving, but because of the way radars work, they simply can’t determine identifying characteristics of cars, such as make, model or colour,” Raytheon told The Intercept. “Along similar lines, they can’t tell who is driving the vehicle or see a licence plate.”
That could change if cameras were added to the JLENS. However, there is currently no indication that this will occur.
Privacy concerns aside, the blimps are massively expensive.
So far, the JLENS project has cost the government $US2.8 billion. Congress has approved another $US43.3 million for the first year of the JLENS operational test.
The astounding price of the JLENS may eventually yield returns, at least when their cost is compared to other alternatives. The Raytheon radars used in the blimps have the surveillance capability of five spy planes, but require only half the manpower and cost 700% less.
“If you’re a commander, you want as much advance warning as possible,” retired Army Brig. Gen. Keith McNamara, told Raytheon. “You need to know where those missiles came from as quickly as possible so you can neutralize that launcher and prevent it from firing again.”
The use of blimps has a long history in the US military. The US first used airships along the Mexican border in the 1920s, and more recently blimps have been outfitted with extreme high-definition cameras and radar to watch for Taliban attacks in Afghanistan.
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