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After runaway blimp, lawmakers wait and see on troubled missile defense system

As Congress faces a deadline to cut $5 billion from President Barack Obama's proposed military budget, some programs are at risk.

But lawmakers have given no indication they will cut funding for the system of radar-equipped blimps that became the butt of jokes when one broke loose from its mooring at Aberdeen Proving Ground last month and flew 150 miles, disrupting civil aviation and damaging power lines before coming to rest in rural Pennsylvania.

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In a survey of all 35 members of the defense appropriations subcommittees in the House and Senate, none voiced opposition to continued funding. Several key lawmakers said through aides that they would not decide the system's fate until the Army has completed its investigation into the cause of the unmooring.

The inquiry is expected to last months — and could conclude after the Dec. 11 deadline Congress must meet to pass a spending bill and avoid a government shutdown.

Known as JLENS — short for Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System — the pilotless blimp system was intended to protect American cities and towns by providing early detection of cruise missiles and other airborne threats.

The $2.7 billion system, developed by Raytheon Co., has been dogged by delays and technical problems since the Army awarded the first contract in 1998. In tests, the blimp-borne 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 the system in four "critical performance areas" and rated its reliability as "poor." In its most recent assessment, in 2013, the agency again cited serious deficiencies and said JLENS had "low system reliability."

Obama's proposed defense budget includes money to preserve JLENS' last lifeline: a three-year trial run, or "operational exercise," in the skies east of Baltimore. The exercise began last December and is expected to cost an estimated $50 million a year.

A Raytheon spokeswoman said the company would have no comment until the Army completes its investigation.

For some, JLENS' continued survival defies understanding. In a Nov. 19 essay posted on the website of the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight, former Marine officer Dan Grazier wrote, "It is unclear what, if anything, can actually kill this program."

Two top Republicans, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi, declined through spokesmen to comment on JLENS funding. Cochran is chairman of both the Senate Appropriations Committee and its defense subcommittee.

A senior Democrat on the same two panels, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland, has been a supporter of the JLENS program. In addition to the program being based in Aberdeen, Maryland is home to TCOM LP, which makes the blimps and related ground equipment as a subcontractor for Raytheon.

The day after the runaway blimp cut its path through Maryland and rural Pennsylvania, Mikulski, the top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, sent Defense Secretary Ashton Carter a letter saying she was "deeply concerned" about the episode. She asked military leaders to "determine whether operational testing for JLENS should continue."

In a statement, a Mikulski spokesman said the senator is reserving judgment on program funding until after the Army finishes its investigation into the unmooring.

Another Maryland Democrat, Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, serves on the House defense appropriations subcommittee, and his district includes Aberdeen Proving Ground.

When the Army decided to base the operational exercise at Aberdeen, Ruppersberger put out a news release saying the trial run "will generate about 140 jobs" for the area and "have a domino effect on our local economy."

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"The JLENS workers will be buying homes, shopping in our grocery stores and eating in our restaurants," the statement said.

Asked where Ruppersberger stands now on JLENS, aide Jaime Lennon said by email: "We think we need to allow the Pentagon to complete its investigation into the unmooring before any decisions are made regarding the program's future."

As for the economic benefits of JLENS, Lennon called the effect on Ruppersberger's district "minimal," adding: "While we do whatever we can to help create and support jobs in the district, citizen safety comes first."

JLENS has supported hundreds of blue- and white-collar jobs in Southern California, Massachusetts, Maryland, North Carolina, Texas and other states — helping to ensure a wide base of congressional support.

Raytheon, the program's prime contractor, is a reliable source of campaign money. The company is one of the world's largest defense contractors and reported net sales of nearly $23 billion last year.

From 1999 through September of this year, its political action committee and employees donated a total of $1.6 million to the campaigns of Congress members now serving on the defense appropriations subcommittees in the House and Senate, federal records show.

Among those 35 members, the top recipient of Raytheon money, with $107,000 in total donations, was Sen. Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat. In addition to his subcommittee seat, he is the ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Reed's spokesman, Chip Unruh, said that the senator is not swayed by donations and that he "votes on the facts and what he believes is best for his constituents."

Regarding Reed's position on JLENS funding, Unruh said, "We're waiting for the investigation to be completed before making a decision."

The top recipient of Raytheon-affiliated campaign funds among House appropriators was Ruppersberger. He has collected $91,250 since he was first elected to Congress in 2002, according to federal campaign finance data posted by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

Ruppersberger's spokeswoman said that "political contributions have no bearing now or ever on the congressman's policy decisions."

The 242-foot-long JLENS blimps are designed to operate in pairs, at altitudes up to 10,000 feet. One blimp's radar would search widely for threats. The other's would focus narrowly on airborne objects and transmit "fire control" data on their location, speed and trajectory. U.S. fighter jets or ground-based rockets would use the data to intercept or destroy an intruder deemed threatening.

After years of frustration with JLENS, top Army brass tried to kill the program in late 2010. By then, the Pentagon had spent more than $2 billion and did not have an operational system to show for it.

Advocates for JLENS, notably Marine Corps Gen. James E. "Hoss" Cartwright, then vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, saved the program in 2011 by arranging for the operational exercise — promoted as a way to help protect the nation's capital.

Cartwright retired the same year — and joined Raytheon's board of directors five months later. From 2012 through 2014, Raytheon paid him more than $828,000 in cash and stock for serving as a director, Securities and Exchange Commission records show.

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Last spring, JLENS suffered a major embarrassment when a postal worker flew a small rotary-wing aircraft through Washington's highly restricted airspace as a political protest, landing on the West Lawn of the Capitol.

The single-seat craft was just the kind of tree-skimming intruder JLENS was designed to detect. Yet the system was not working; software problems with the "fire control" radar had grounded one of the blimps.

It was against that backdrop that a JLENS blimp broke loose Oct. 28, dragging its 6,700-foot Kevlar mooring cable behind it. The cable knocked out electricity to 35,000 Pennsylvania residents. F-16 fighter-jets were scrambled to track the blimp.

It came to rest in high trees in Moreland Township, Pa. The next day, at the military's request, six state troopers with shotguns unleashed "a barrage" at the tattered blimp to drain its remaining helium, said Pennsylvania State Police Capt. David Young.

Fugitive Edward Snowden, Sen. John McCain and others lampooned the troubled JLENS system on Twitter. At a Republican presidential debate the same night, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee ridiculed the runaway blimp on national TV as "basically a bag of gas that cut loose, destroyed everything in its path, left thousands of people powerless."

"But they couldn't get rid of it," Huckabee said, "because we had too much money invested in it."

Baltimore Sun reporter John Fritze contributed to this article.

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