Runaway blimp fiasco highlights larger US Army problems
A 243-foot surveillance aerostat broke loose from its moorings in Aberdeen, Maryland on Wednesday afternoon and drifted for 160 miles (257 kilometers) before crashing in central Pennsylvania. The two-kilometer long broken tether that was still suspended from the blimp left a trail of destruction in its wake, starting fires and leaving thousands without power. Two F-16 fighter jets were scrambled to shadow the blimp.
The craft ultimately had to be grounded by shotgun blasts from state troopers in the Pennsylvania countryside. The army began to accept claims related to damages caused by the rogue aerostat on Friday, providing a phone number for affected parties.
The airship was one of two kept aloft by the $2.7 billion JLENS (Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor) program. JLENS has been criticized for having budget and performance problems over its nearly two-decade history. Now, thanks to greater scrutiny attracted by the blimp fiasco, lawmakers want to know whether the program is more trouble than its worth.
“This event raises questions about the value and reliability of JLENS,” wrote Representatives Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), and Elijah Cummings (D-Maryland), chairman and ranking member of the House oversight committee, respectively, in a joint letter to Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. They asked for all Department of Defense and Department of Transportation documents relating to JLENS no later than November 12, to help them “understand whether JLENS is a worthwhile investment of taxpayer dollars.”
There were also indications that the aerostat’s emergency systems might have functioned improperly, according to documents obtained by the Baltimore Sun.
Military planners wrote in NORAD briefing documents last year that the blimp would deflate automatically if it lost power, reached a certain altitude, or was given a remote command.
Once deflated, the blimp would be on the ground in a matter of four minutes, according to planners. However, that didn’t happen, and now a NORAD spokesman said that part of the investigation into the failure of the craft will include the performance of the deflation system.
While no lives were lost in this embarrassing military mishap, the same can’t be said about a surveillance blimp accident that occurred in Afghanistan.
On October 11, a British helicopter was coming into NATO headquarters in the Afghan capital of Kabul. A blimp similar to the one that unmoored in Maryland was docked there, and the incoming helicopter hit its tether, which wrapped itself around the aircraft’s rotors. The helicopter crashed, killing two American service members, two British service members, and a French contractor, as well as five more people, according to The Intercept.
The problem of aircraft colliding with military blimps isn’t unheard of in Afghanistan. In 2013, at least three army aerostats were lost due to helicopters striking their tethers during the course of a single year, according to Defense News. After those incidents, the military placed “flags and visible light and infrared strobes at regular intervals on the tethers to help improve visibility.”
Afghanistan even had a runaway blimp fiasco of its own in 2011, according to a description by Defense News. A blimp became unmoored, “speeding through the sky, out of control, carried by the furious wind. Suddenly, an F-16 fighter jet roared close and then opened fire, mangling the blimp-like dirigible, like blasting a football with a round of buckshot. Gradually, the aerostat slumped to the ground.”
The exact capabilities of surveillance aerostats aren’t clear. The blimp that broke free in Maryland was created with the purpose of detecting long-range missile attacks near the nation’s capital. Its capabilities are classified, but a military spokesperson said that there are no cameras on board, according to The Intercept.
The company behind the blimp, Raytheon, was also in the news this week for claiming the Canadian government cut it out of a military project worth millions of dollars, according to Vice News. The government was seeking new wearable technology that could help troops communicate more effectively on the ground, but Raytheon said Canada was not following its own process.