Joaquin winds may force military to deflate JLENS balloons at APG

What would Hurricane Joaquin mean for the giant surveillance balloons at APG?

Military officials are planning for what to do with the pair of giant radar surveillance balloons based at Aberdeen Proving Ground should Hurricane Joaquin strike the region.

Michael Kucharek, a spokesman for the North American Aeropsace Defense Command, said the balloons are designed to stay operational in winds of up to 70 knots, the lower bound of a Category 1 hurricane. They can withstand 100 knots, he said, which is around the threshold for a Category 3 storm.

"When you're talking about a Category 1 hurricane, they would likely pull that down and moor it," Kucharek said. In a Category 3 storm, the football-field length balloons would have to be deflated, he said.

The pair of white balloons — officially known as the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor or JLENS — is designed to use sophisticated radar to detect cruise missiles and other airborne threats to the Washington region.

But the program has faced significant hurdles over the years and a Tribune investigation recently found that questions remain about the system's effectiveness.

The balloons have faced problems in severe weather before. In 2010 one JLENS balloon was completely destroyed at a facility in North Carolina when another blimp broke from its mooring and collided with it. Official pictures of the aftermath show the remains of the JLENS balloon lying shriveled on an airfield.

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