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Why the military uses ‘blimps’

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A balloon-like military surveillance device broke away from its tether and landed 100 miles away

Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling: The craft are really aerostats and are cost-efficient and effective

Editor’s Note: Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, former commander of U.S. Army Europe, served in the Army for more than 37 years and spent more than three years in Iraq. He is a CNN military analyst. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

CNN —  

On Wednesday, many watched in amazement as a “blimp” broke loose from its mooring outside Aberdeen, Maryland.

Dragging a 6,000-foot steel mooring cable – which caused local power outages as it made contact with power lines – and escorted by circling F-16s aircraft that cleared civilian aircraft flight paths, the balloon finally deflated and came to rest 100 miles north in a wooded area near Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania.

Those of us who are familiar with these devices know they aren’t really “blimps.” These balloons are known as aerostats, or tethered airship, and the military – as is often our habit – has provided it with the acronym JLENS for Joint Land Elevated Network Sensor.

Mark Hertling
Mark Hertling

These devices were distributed to forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, and when I commanded Task Force Iron in northern Iraq, I had smaller versions of these helium-filled balloons flying over almost all the major operating bases. Their powerful optics and Forward-Looking Infrared Radar cameras could see clearly for miles, and these pieces of kit helped us detect enemy movements and insurgents planting improvised explosive devices.

While the aerostat that broke from its mooring outside Aberdeen Proving Ground looked similar to those we used in combat, this one was much bigger and had a different configuration and even a different descriptive (and much less pronounceable) acronym. This Joint Land-Attack Cruise Missile Elevated Netted Sensor System, or JLACMENSS, is twice as big (242 feet long), is part of a two-ship “orbit” (these particular aerostats work in pairs; one carries a VHF-band surveillance radar, and the other carries an X-band fire control radar), it flies higher (10,000 feet, allowing it to see over the mountains of the East Coast), and has a stronger lift capability (each of the radars weighs about 7,000 pounds).

But most importantly, it has a much different mission. While the ones our soldiers have been successfully using in combat are geared toward assisting in the tactical fight, the aerostat that broke free on Wednesday is part of an important strategic initiative. When linked to several command centers and missile launch sites, it is the dual sensor that protects the skies around our nation’s capital from all things attempting to avoid radar: cruise missiles, drones and low-flying aircraft.

Why is the United States using aerostats for this mission?

Primarily, it’s because aerostats are extremely cost-effective. These aircraft can remain aloft for up to 30 days at a time, providing 24/7, 360-degree radar coverage. The same daily coverage would take four or five fixed-wing surveillance aircraft per day, with related aircraft crew requirements, increased fuel usage, and wear on an ever-decreasing Air Force surveillance fleet. Experts estimate an 80%-85% cost saving.

Beyond that, the JLACMENSS is extremely effective. The 360-degree coverage extends 340 miles, allowing the paired aerostats continuously to scan an area the size of Texas between the cities of Boston and Raleigh, North Carolina. The networked capability – between the two aerostats, the armored mooring station, the ground fire control systems, and any mix of Army Patriot Missiles fired from a ground base, Navy Standard Missile 6’s (SM-6) fired from an Aegis Cruiser, and Air Force Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missiles fired from an aircraft – make this an extremely flexible system. While currently used in the Department of Homeland Security as part of Operation Noble Eagle, it has the potential to deploy to combat theaters such as Korea, Europe or the Middle East.

There are unresolved questions about the broken tether. All indicators are it broke about one-third of the way up the tether from the mooring. Reports say it was dragging along the ground when the ship was about 6,000-plus feet up, and the other 3,000 feet was still attached to the reel spool, but we don’t know what caused it yet. That’s what the post-accident investigation will determine, and Army investigations are extremely detailed and extensive.

By the way, this isn’t the first aerostat used to protect Washington. In 1861, Thaddeus Lowe demonstrated balloon reconnaissance to President Abraham Lincoln, with a tether attached to an airship named Enterprise. Lincoln was so impressed, he established the “balloon corps,” and a few months later an aerostat floating above Arlington, Virginia, telegraphed warning of Confederate troop movements near Falls Church, more than three miles away. There are no historical reports of any of the balloons used in the Civil War breaking their tether.

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