The US military’s runaway blimp has been a multibillion-dollar boondoggle for years

The US military’s runaway blimp has been a multibillion-dollar boondoggle for years
Image: Raytheon
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Updated at 3:45pm ET.

An unmanned 240 foot (75m) helium-filled blimp used by the US military to defend the east coast from cruise missiles and drones broke loose from its mooring today (Oct. 28) and drifted over Pennsylvania for hours before being brought to ground, according to local news reports.

Local news station SECV 8 reported that a cable hanging from the blimp took down power lines in the area, leaving nearly 14,000 people without power.

The blimp is part of a program called Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System (JLENS). Billed as “the future of defense” by military contractor Raytheon, the 17-year-old JLENS project has become a costly and ineffective “zombie” program, which has proven impossible to kill because of intense lobbying, an LA Times investigation found:

A 2012 report by the Pentagon’s Operational Test and Evaluation office faulted the system in four “critical performance areas” and rated its reliability as “poor.” A year later, in its most recent assessment, the agency again cited serious deficiencies and said JLENS had “low system reliability.”

Each JLENS blimp costs about $182 million, and the entire project has a pricetag of about $2.7 billion.

It’s not clear how authorities managed to bring the blimp—which normally operates at an altitude of 10,000 feet—to ground. As the Baltimore Sun reported, Raytheon says on its website (pdf) that “in the unlikely event” one of the aircraft comes unmoored, “there are a number of procedures and systems in place which are designed to bring the aerostat down in a safe manner.”

The system consists of two blimps stationed in Maryland—technically aerostats, since they are (or were) tethered and have no propulsion—that use sophisticated radar to monitor the skies all the way from Canada to North Carolina.

JLENS has been hampered by cost overruns and failures, such as its inability to detect a man who landed his ultralight gyrocopter on the US Capitol grounds.

Quartz sister publication Defense One reported that “NORAD declined repeated requests for information as to whether or not the JLENS detected the slow moving helicopter moving toward Washington, D.C. They also have yet to respond to a Defense One Freedom of information Act Request for information about the matter.”