Congressional leaders have agreed to cut funding to the troubled JLENS surveillance balloon program by three-quarters in the bipartisan budget agreement working its way through Congress.
The legislation attributes the $30 million cut to a "test schedule delay" — a tidy way of describing the escape of one of the 242-foot-long balloons from its mooring in October and its destructive journey north into Pennsylvania.
The federal budget for fiscal 2016 proposed by Senate and House leaders this week would provide $10.5 million for the JLENS program. President Barack Obama had asked for $40.5 million. The House is expected to vote on the package Friday.
Officials on Capitol Hill were reluctant to talk about what the cut might mean for the future of JLENS, which was developed for the Army by Raytheon Co. But a House aide who specializes in defense said: "We think the cut sends a signal to [the Defense Department] to reduce or shut down the program."
Rep. C A Dutch Ruppersberger, whose district includes Aberdeen Proving Ground, said the cut made sense, given that the balloons have been grounded since the October mishap. His office said the funding could be shifted back if Army investigators conclude they are safe to fly.
"In order for me to support it once they've finished the investigation, we have to make sure there's no chance of the JLENS technology breaking loose again," the Baltimore County Democrat said.
After months hovering over Baltimore, the pilotless blimp broke free from its mooring on Oct. 28 and drifted north to Pennsylvania, disrupting civil aviation and clipping power lines with its 6,700-foot tether. The military scrambled a pair of F-16s from Atlantic City, N.J., while blimp-related memes went viral on the Internet.
Four hours and 160 miles later, the wayward aircraft came to rest in rural Moreland Township, Pa.
The test cited in the budget bill is a three-year, $150 million "operational exercise" in which a pair of JLENS blimps was to stand watch over the Washington region, serving as an early warning system in the event of an attack by cruise missiles or other low-flying weapons.
The Army suspended the exercise after the October mishap, pending the conclusion of an investigation into what caused the blimp to break free. On Thursday, a spokeswoman for the North American Aerospace Defense Command said the investigation could last "approximately 90 more days."
Maj. Beth R. Smith, the spokeswoman, said she could not speculate on the impact the funding cut might have on the long-term future of JLENS.
"Future decisions regarding the continuation of the operational exercise will be made following the investigation's conclusion," she said.
JLENS — a loose acronym of Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System — was developed to protect U.S. troops in combat and American cities and towns.
The balloons loiter at altitudes of up to 10,000 feet with sophisticated radar capable at that height of seeing 340 miles in any direction. From Maryland, that covers a circle that stretches from North Carolina to Canada — far beyond the limits that Earth's curvature imposes on land- or sea-based radar.
At that height, the balloons are visible for miles around. The two white bubbles were clearly visible from downtown Baltimore throughout the summer.
The blimps are designed to operate in pairs. One searches widely for threats. The other focuses narrowly on airborne objects and transmits fire-control data on their location, speed and trajectory.
U.S. fighter jets or ground-based rockets would use the fire-control data to intercept and destroy an intruder.
Russia has recently used missiles fired from ships in the Mediterranean as part of its bombing campaign in Syria. Some analysts fear that a terror group could obtain a similar weapon.
Ruppersberger said the threat posed by low-flying missiles means the military needs a way to detect them. But whether JLENS is the best way, he said, remains an open question.
"It's the Army's technology," he said. "They're going to have to research and make a determination."
The program has cost taxpayers about $2.7 billion since its inception in 1998, but has yet to provide operational missile defense.
In tests, the JLENS radar has struggled to track flying objects, and to distinguish friendly aircraft from threatening ones.
A 2012 report by the Pentagon's Operational Test and Evaluation office faulted JLENS in four "critical performance areas'" and rated its reliability as "poor."
In its most recent assessment, in 2013, the office said JLENS had "low system reliability."
NORAD is still considering ways to protect U.S. skies from cruise missiles and drones. The command issued contracting documents this month to identify suppliers of a "very small piloted jet" to take part in a test as soon as early 2016.