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Missile-defense blimps to sail above Harford, but not for spy purposes, officials say

Two giant missile-tracking blimps, part of an airborne-attack defense exercise, will soon be perched high above parts of Aberdeen Proving Ground in Harford and Baltimore counties, as Army officials have been going to lengths reassure residents that they will not be spying on them.

An APG spokesman, Kelly Luster, led a presentation before the Harford County Council Tuesday night in hopes of deflecting concerns that the Army's JLENS, for Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Elevated Netted Sensor System, program will actually be doing citizen surveillance.

"There have already been media pieces" suggesting such a notion, Luster told the council. He was accompanied by Kevin Kavanagh, government site lead for JLENS.

Luster explained the helium-filled blimps will have no cameras and will not "be hovering overhead to see what neighbors are doing."

The 240-foot-long blimps, called aerostats, would use radar to detect cruise missiles, rockets or aircraft from as far as the Washington, D.C. area to New York City, as well as out to sea. They would also be able to track and target the airborne weapons or aircraft.

The aerostats will be tethered to special pads with docking stations. One will be on APG property at Graces Quarters in Baltimore County and one at G-Field on the Edgewood Area of APG.

"It's a good thing," Kavanagh said following the meeting.

The JLENS exercise would run for three years and bring about 100 troops and 30 civilians to APG, according to the Army. The blimps can stay up for 30 days at a time.

Once the aerostats go up, most likely this fall, "we are certain this will generate phone calls and Internet and social media buzz," Luster warned the council members.

"I say this because the aerostats are quite large and they're visible for about 50 miles on a clear day," he continued. "People will see them for miles around."

In response to council questions, Luster said the blimps would not be up during bad weather.

Following the presentation, Luster said he believes the surveillance rumors came up because news about JLENS coincided with news articles about drones and spies elsewhere.

APG is one of two national sites chosen to host the trial run for the JLENS program. The other location is in Utah, he said.

Luster said personnel are prepared to contact county emergency responders in the highly unlikely event of a tether break.

"Fortunately, JLENS has a great track record and has never experienced a tether break," he said.

Luster and Kavanagh also explained that the blimps include a redundant system that allows them to deflate in the event of a tether break.

Luster encouraged everyone to follow and

He noted that he also has attended council and community meetings in Cecil and Baltimore counties and will put out press releases and hold some listening sessions and other town hall meetings in the areas of the JLENS exercises.

"Our goal is communication and transparency with community neighbors," Luster said.

This story has been updated with corrected information.

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