In just a few days, the Army will launch the first of two massive blimps over Maryland, the last gasp of an 18-year-long $2.8-billion Army project intended to use giant airships to defend against cruise missiles.
And while the blimps may never stave off a barrage of enemy missiles, their ability to spot and track cars, trucks and boats hundreds of miles away is raising serious privacy concerns.
The project is called JLENS – or “Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System.” And you couldn’t come up with a better metaphor for wildly inflated defense contracts, a ponderous Pentagon bureaucracy, and the U.S. surveillance leviathan all in one.
Built by the Raytheon Company, the JLENS blimps operate as a pair. One provides omnipresent high-resolution 360-degree radar coverage up to 340 miles in any direction; the other can focus on specific threats and provide targeting information.
Technically considered aerostats, since they are tethered to mooring stations, these lighter-than-air vehicles will hover at a height of 10,000 feet just off Interstate 95, about 45 miles northeast of Washington, D.C., and about 20 miles from Baltimore. That means they can watch what’s happening from North Carolina to Boston, or an area the size of Texas.
At one point, there were supposed to be nearly three dozen blimps. But after a series of operational failures and massive cost overruns, the program was dramatically scaled back to the two existing prototypes that the Army plans to keep flying continuously above the Aberdeen Proving Ground for three years, except for maintenance and foul weather.
As soon the blimps are up, if you’re driving on the interstate north of Baltimore, you won’t be able to miss them. They are 80 yards long and their total volume is somewhere around 600,000 cubic feet. That’s about the size of three Goodyear blimps. Or over 3,500 white elephants
“There’s something inherently suspect for the public to look up in the sky and see this surveillance device hanging there,” says Ginger McCall, associate director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), an advocacy group. “It’s the definition of persistent surveillance.”
Army officials claim they have no interest in monitoring anything other than missiles, or maybe boats. But JLENS can detect plenty more than that.
“A lot of people may hear radar and they picture a fuzzy green screen with little blips. But today’s radar is significantly more sophisticated than that and is in some ways akin to a camera,” warns Jay Stanley, a privacy expert for the American Civil Liberties Union.
Raytheon promotional material touts a recent test, when the JLENS radar “simultaneously detected and tracked double-digit swarming boats, hundreds of cars and trucks, non-swarming boats and manned and unmanned aircraft.”
Aerostats like JLENS aren’t limited to radar. If equipped with extremely high-resolution video cameras, they can see and record everything for miles, with extraordinary detail. In Kabul, for example, residents are used to seeing the U.S. military’s tethered aerostat—called the Persistent Ground Surveillance system—hovering above the city, capturing video of daily life below.
The Army insists that there will be no cameras on JLENS for now. In a test last year, however, Raytheon equipped one of the blimps with an MTS-B Multi-Spectral Targeting System that provides both day and night imaging, laser designation, and laser illumination capabilities.
The result: JLENS operators could “watch live feed of trucks, trains and cars from dozens of miles away.” They also watched Raytheon employees “simulate planting a roadside improvised explosive device.”
Maj.Beth Smith, the spokesperson for the JLENS program, says the Army isn’t planning to spy on anyone. JLENS “has no cameras, it has no video, nor is it tracking any people,” she says. “It does not possess the capability to see people.”
And while it can see cars, “for the purposes of this test, we have no intent to track any vehicles. Well, any civilian vehicles.”
A DEFLATED PROGRAM
Back in 2005, the Army planned to have Raytheon build 32 blimps at a cost of about $180 million each. But growing doubts and hemorrhaging costs, along with the destruction of one blimp in a collision, led the Pentagon to hit the brakes in 2012. There would be no more new blimps, just testing for the prototypes that had already been constructed.
That brings the price tag for the two remaining blimps to around $1.4 billion each, if development costs are counted. (Technically, there’s another duo mothballed in storage in the Utah desert, but there are no current plans to use them.) That’s serious money, even by federal government standards.
Raytheon trumpets the results of several successful tests of the system, including an August 2013 demonstration in which JLENS helped an F-15 knock a mock cruise missile out of the sky. But a blistering analysis from the Pentagon’s Operational Test & Evaluation office for fiscal year 2013 found that testing had been inadequate and that JLENS needed improvement in critical areas, including “non-cooperative target recognition, friendly aircraft identification capabilities, and target track consistency” – i.e. telling the difference between friends and enemies.
The testing report found JLENS failed to meet its goals for reliability, because of both software and hardware problems, that it was too dependent on good weather, and that it “did not demonstrate the ability to survive in its intended operational environment.”
Indeed, one blimp got totaled at its manufacturing and test facility in North Carolina in September 2010 after it was struck by a different dirigible moored nearby that had broken loose in a storm. The Army and Raytheon sat on the news for more than six months, until InsideDefense.com saw a mention of the collision in a GAO report.
The crash cost the Army another $168 million.
And the money keeps on flowing. Just two weeks ago, the Army awarded Raytheon another contract, this one for $12 million simply to keep the blimps maintained for the next six months
Raytheon has tried to assuage privacy concerns in a few of the “Frequently Asked Questions” from its promotional material, which insists that JLENS cannot be used to track individual people.
“Radars can tell that something is moving, but because of the way radars work, they simply can’t determine identifying characteristics of cars, such as make, model or color,” Raytheon says. “Along similar lines, they can’t tell who is driving the vehicle or see a license plate.”
Maj. Nelson insists that “JLENS is an elevated radar system and has no task to monitor ground targets. It does not organically store any radar data.”
Even so, radar can track hundreds of square miles of traffic, and the real question is what the Army will do with that data.
Extensive redactions in the hundreds of pages of contracting documents related to JLENS in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit by EPIC leave the true scope of the project unclear.
One EPIC researcher poring through the documents found an alarming passage. The Army’s contract with Raytheon, it said, will be evaluated based on its “potential to grow to accommodate new and/or alternative missions.”
Talk to blimp experts, and they’ll tell you what blimps are good for.
“They’re wonderful for staring at things,” says Ed Herlik, a former Air Force officer and technology analyst with a particular interest in airships. “That’s what the Israelis use them for.”
And it’s not just their ability to document what they see that’s so valuable; it’s the psychological effect. “If you put a camera in a sky over an area where you expect a lot of unrest, the area will calm down,” he says.
The ACLU’s Jay Stanley says the Army’s promises are not enough.
“I’m sure that the people who are giving us these assurances mean everything they say, but the nature of government programs and government agencies is that things tend to expand and privacy protections tend to shrink.”
What the program needs, according to Stanley, is oversight and it doesn’t have that now. “If we’re going to have massive blimps hovering over civilian areas, or within radar-shot of civilian areas, then we need some very ironclad checks and balances that will provide confidence that there’s no domestic surveillance going on,” Stanley says.
Federal privacy regulations currently don’t apply. “JLENS does not operate under privacy rules,” Smith, the spokesperson for JLENS, explains. “It is a military radar and as such carries no electro-optical or infrared cameras, nor does it have acoustic or electronic surveillance capability. There is no ability to ‘listen’ to cellular or radio traffic, nor can it optically ‘see’ any ground objects.”
For now, the closest thing to public oversight will be a media day at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds on Wednesday, where the Army will give reporters a chance to ooh and ah during an up-close look at one of the blimps, fully inflated with enough helium to fill about two million nine-inch latex party balloons.
But even this blimp isn’t ready for its much-delayed launch. And the other one isn’t even inflated yet.