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Seventeen years and $2.7 billion in, Pentagon's high-tech blimps fail to deliver on promise

Tribune Newspapers
$2.7 billion later, Pentagon's high-tech blimps fail to deliver on promise.

The Army is testing giant high-tech blimps east of Baltimore to assess their ability to provide an early warning if the national capital area were attacked with cruise missiles, drones or other low-flying weapons.

But after 17 years of research and $2.7 billion spent by the Pentagon, the system known as JLENS doesn't work as envisioned. The 240-foot-long, milk-white blimps, visible for miles around, have been hobbled by defective software, vulnerability to bad weather and poor reliability.

In videos and news releases, Raytheon Co., the Pentagon's lead contractor for JLENS, has asserted that the system is "proven," "capable," "performing well right now" and "ready to deploy today."

But JLENS is a stark example of what defense specialists call a "zombie" program: costly, ineffectual and seemingly impossible to kill.

A Tribune investigation, which included a review of reports by the Pentagon testing office and the U.S. Government Accountability Office and interviews with defense scientists and military officers, has found:

•In tests, JLENS has struggled to track flying objects and to distinguish friendly aircraft from threatening ones.

•The Pentagon's Operational Test and Evaluation office faulted the system in 2012 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."

•The system is designed to provide continuous air-defense surveillance for 30 days at a time, but had not managed to do so as of last month.

•Software glitches have hobbled its ability to communicate with the nation's air-defense networks — a critical failing, given that JLENS' main purpose is to alert U.S. forces to incoming threats.

•The massive blimps can be grounded by bad weather and, if deployed in combat zones, would be especially vulnerable to enemy attack.

•Even if all those problems could be overcome, it would be prohibitively expensive to deploy enough of the airships to protect the United States along its borders and coasts.

Despite the system's documented shortcomings, Raytheon and other backers of JLENS have marshaled support in Congress and at the highest levels of the military to keep taxpayer money flowing to the program.

They have done so in part by depicting JLENS as the answer to an ever-evolving list of threats: cruise missiles, drones and other small aircraft, "swarming" boats, even explosives-laden trucks.

Army leaders tried to kill JLENS in 2010. What happened next illustrates the difficulty of ending even a deeply troubled defense program.

Raytheon mobilized its congressional lobbyists. Within the Pentagon, Marine Corps Gen. James E. "Hoss" Cartwright, then vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, came to JLENS' defense, arguing that it held promise for enhancing the nation's air defenses.

At Cartwright's urging, money was found in 2011 for a trial run of the technology in the skies above Washington.

Cartwright retired the same year — and joined Raytheon's board of directors five months later. By the end of 2014, Raytheon had paid him more than $828,000 in cash and stock for serving as a director, Securities and Exchange Commission records show.

Tribune sought comment from Raytheon and an opportunity to interview company officials about JLENS. Spokeswoman Keri S. Connors said by email that Raytheon "declines to participate in the story."

Cartwright, who remains a Raytheon director, did not respond to messages seeking comment.

Philip E. Coyle III, who oversaw assessments of dozens of major weapons systems as the Pentagon's director of operational testing from 1994 to 2001, said Congress should closely examine whether JLENS deserves any more taxpayer dollars.

The cost of a blimp-borne radar network extensive enough to defend the nation against cruise missiles "would be enormous," Coyle said in an interview.

"When you look at the full system — all the pieces that are required — that's when it gets really daunting," he said.

The giant white blimps — one tethered to a concrete pad at Graces Quarters in Baltimore County, the other four miles away at G-Field in Harford County — have become a fixture on the Baltimore landscape.

The failings of the system made news in April when a postal worker from Florida flew a single-seat, rotary-wing aircraft into the heart of the nation's capital to dramatize his demand for campaign finance reform.

JLENS is intended to spot just such a tree-skimming intruder. Yet 61-year-old Douglas Hughes flew undetected through 30 miles of highly restricted airspace before landing on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol.

At a congressional hearing soon afterward, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican, demanded to know how "a dude in a gyrocopter 100 feet in the air" was able to pull off such an audacious stunt.

"Whose job is it to detect him?" Chaffetz asked.

It was JLENS' job, but the system was "not operational" that day, said Adm. William E. Gortney, the head of the North American Aerospace Defense Command. The admiral offered no estimate for when it would be.

JLENS is short for Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System — Pentagon-speak for airborne radar that is linked, or "netted," to the nation's air-defense network.

The radar is kept aloft by pilotless, helium-filled airships. At the maximum altitude of 10,000 feet, the radar can see 340 miles in any direction, far beyond the limits that the curvature of the Earth imposes on land- or sea-based radar.

The blimps are designed to operate in pairs. One searches widely for threats. The other is supposed to focus narrowly on airborne objects and transmit fire-control data on their location, speed and trajectory.

If JLENS were working as intended, U.S. fighter jets or ground-based rockets would use the fire-control data to intercept and destroy an intruder.

The 7,000-pound airships are anchored to the ground by high-strength, 1-1/8-inch-thick Kevlar tethers, which also hold wiring for electricity. A ground crew of about 130 is needed to operate the pair around the clock.

The Army awarded the first JLENS contract in 1998 to a joint venture led by Raytheon, for an estimated $292 million.

Raytheon, headquartered in Waltham, Mass., assembled the radar. The blimps and ground equipment were built by TCOM L.P., based in Columbia, Md. Subcontractors provided other components and services.

The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, seemed to validate the Army's decision by demonstrating the potential for unconventional airborne attacks anywhere in the world, including the nation's capital.

In November 2005, the Army added $1.3 billion to Raytheon's JLENS contract, and the government committed to buy 28 of the blimps.

But problems emerged with the software for the fire-control radar, causing repeated delays in testing and production.

Doubts also grew within the Army about whether JLENS would serve a real need.

Its original selling point was that it could be moved swiftly around within a battle theater. But given the extensive ground facilities required to support JLENS — including power generators and reinforced concrete pads to anchor the airships, that became implausible.

A more serious problem, from the standpoint of Army leaders, was that even a fully functioning JLENS wouldn't be much use against the weapons that were killing and maiming U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan: crude rockets, artillery and improvised explosive devices.

JLENS was designed chiefly to defend against cruise missiles, which were not a threat in those battle zones. And the United States already had radar-equipped planes that could detect cruise missiles.

A mishap at a test facility in Elizabeth City, N.C., operated by TCOM, further soured Army leaders on JLENS.

During a storm on Sept. 30, 2010, a civilian balloon broke loose from its mooring, destroying a grounded JLENS blimp that had cost about $182 million.

By then, the Pentagon had poured more than $2 billion into JLENS and did not have an operational system to show for it. Planners estimated it would take billions more to deliver JLENS as originally promised.

At the insistence of Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, then the Army's vice chief of staff, officials canceled plans to buy the full complement of 28 blimps and prepared to kill the program.

Chiarelli wanted the money spent on technologies that would defend against RAM — Army shorthand for rockets, artillery and mortar.

"I tried to kill it," Chiarelli, now retired, said in an interview. "I did not see JLENS as an effective RAM counter-surveillance. I wanted somebody to realize that what was killing our soldiers was RAM and not cruise missiles."

Raytheon sent into action a team of lobbyists that included former Sens. Trent Lott, a Mississippi Republican, and John Breaux, a Louisiana Democrat.

The company expanded the rationale for JLENS, asserting that it could be used to protect not just troops in combat, but also American cities and towns.

The list of threats to which JLENS was the answer grew as well. To missiles, drones and small aircraft, Raytheon added boats and "moving ground targets," including tanks and trucks.

Inside the military, Cartwright and other JLENS supporters sought to overcome the Army's opposition by arguing that the system could bolster "situational awareness" of airborne threats, adding a valuable capability to existing early-warning networks.

The military backers of JLENS also tapped into the lingering post-Sept. 11 concern that Washington remained vulnerable.

They proposed basing JLENS at Aberdeen Proving Ground, about 60 miles northeast of Washington, for a three-year trial run, during which the system would protect the capital area and a surrounding swath of the eastern United States.

This offered members of Congress the prospect of increased surveillance of the region where they work and live.

It won the backing of Maryland Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, who was then head of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and whose state is home to TCOM and Aberdeen Proving Ground. (An aide to Mikulski said Thursday the senator was reviewing the reports on JLENS.)

The system's backers said JLENS could provide continuous aerial surveillance at a fraction of what it would cost to keep the military's radar planes in the air around the clock.

The rescue effort was fortified by JLENS' broad economic footprint: The program has supported hundreds of blue- and white-collar jobs not only in Maryland, but also in California, Texas, Virginia, North Carolina, Massachusetts, Oregon, Alabama, New Mexico and Utah.

Army leaders pushed back. If Cartwright and others wanted to keep JLENS going, they said, the Army should not be required to pay for it.

JLENS advocates responded by seeking some of what would be needed for the three-year test exercise from Defense Department research and development funds.

By the spring of 2011, the system's supporters had prevailed in the Pentagon. Soon thereafter, Congress approved the funding.

JLENS would live on.

So would its stubborn technical problems.

In videos and other promotional materials, Raytheon has claimed that JLENS can provide nonstop protection.

"JLENS is always on. It provides 360 degrees of continuous surveillance — 24/7, 30 days at a time," says the narrator of a 2012 video. "JLENS is proven, capable, cost-effective and ready."

In fact, equipment malfunctions and weather conditions had prevented JLENS from operating continuously for as long as 30 days, as of the end of last month, according to Pentagon documents and defense specialists.

The Pentagon testing office gave JLENS low marks in 2012, including for its ability to find a track a target — and to distinguish friendly aircraft from real threats. The office cited "software stability" problems affecting the all-important fire-control radar.

The deficiencies emerged during tests conducted at a range in Utah. The testing office said JLENS had remained airborne and functional for an average of just 21 hours per launch. It rated the system's overall reliability as "poor."

In its 2013 report, the office said JLENS had demonstrated "a potential capability" to relay radar data to U.S. forces during four experimental flights. In one of the tests, data from JLENS enabled a missile to destroy a target drone.

The flights, however, were made in an "operationally unrealistic test environment," the office said, and relied on "equipment that is not part of the JLENS system."

The Pentagon specialists again noted that JLENS had been deficient in locating and consistently tracking targets — and in distinguishing friendly from potential enemy aircraft.

In addition, they said, military personnel needed "significant contractor support" from Raytheon to run the system during tests. Troops would not have that luxury in combat.

Among their conclusions: "JLENS system level reliability is not meeting program reliability growth goals. Both software and hardware reliability problems contribute to low system reliability."

They also said tests of the system's ability to perform in the face of expected electronic interference from radios and other radars during an attack "revealed several anomalies affecting mission-critical systems."

Referring to that vulnerability, they wrote: "JLENS did not demonstrate the ability to survive in its intended operational environment."

The three-year trial run over Maryland — officially, an "operational exercise" — is costing taxpayers about $50 million a year. Nearly $20 million was spent just to pour the massive concrete footings needed to anchor the airships, according to a congressional analyst who has tracked the program.

In announcing the test exercise in December, the North American Aerospace Defense Command said the first blimp would be deployed that month, "followed approximately six weeks later by the second."

In a news release dated Dec. 27, 2014, Raytheon said JLENS "is strategically emplaced to help defend Washington, D.C., and a Texas-sized portion of the East Coast."

The first blimp went aloft in December. But software problems with the fire-control radar have kept the second airship on the ground for most of this year.

That's why Douglas Hughes was able to fly his gyrocopter through Washington airspace undetected.

Maj. Beth R. Smith said the difficulty in launching the second blimp involved "software issues" affecting the integration of JLENS data "into the NORAD air defense network."

She said in late July that JLENS was still not linked, or "netted," to NORAD.

The second airship was briefly sent aloft Aug. 18 and again Aug. 22. Each flight lasted only about an hour, according to Air Force Maj. Katrina G. Andrews.

JLENS is now in a "testing and system checkout phase," she said this month. Asked whether the system had yet been integrated into the NORAD network, Andrews declined to elaborate.

Robert M. Stein, a radar engineer and former Raytheon executive who serves on the Pentagon's Defense Science Board, expressed doubt that JLENS would ever be feasible for broad-scale use.

Deploying the blimps widely enough to protect the country against cruise missiles would be impractical, he said in an interview. It would make more sense, Stein said, to invest in improved intelligence so that the U.S. could anticipate an attack and take preemptive action.

"It's awfully expensive to be able to deal with a bolt out of the blue," he said. "That's almost an impossible job."

Baltimore Sun reporters John Fritze and Ian Duncan contributed to this article.

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