Living In The Shadow Of an Intrusive, Expensive, and Ineffective Surveillance Blimp

blimp(1)By Kristen Anderson

The US government is increasingly using war technology and equipment not on the battlefield, but on domestic soil to thwart various threats.  From the militarization of our police forces across the nation to an increase in the purchase of tanks, drones, and blimps.  Military contractors and supplies have a deep reach in the federal government and when military spending lags due to relative international peace, they turn to domestic surveillance and supposed protection against missiles or enemy aircraft.

For several months, residents of Maryland have noticed an unmanned blimp floating above their cities and counties. The Army choreographed the sophisticated launch of the football field sized blimp from Aberdeen Proving Grounds. While the government insists that the $2.7 billion project funded by the Pentagon is not spying on US citizens, community groups and leaders have their doubts.

Electronic Privacy Information Center associate director Ginger McCall  obtained documents through a lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act that state that the blimp has 2 purposes: first – to scan the sky for incoming cruise missiles, and second – to surveil and track surface moving objects. While scanning for incoming cruise missiles seems like a worthy cause, tracking and spying on ground level moving objects causes alarm. Ground level moving objects is another way of saying “humans.”  So just what kind of information is this blimp collecting about the citizens of Maryland?

The blimp’s radar has a 340-mile reach; that’s from Boston all the way down to North Carolina. The blimp supposedly continuously scans for missiles that could be shot from Russia or from submarines, and would issue an alert to the Pentagon should a missile be detected.  The Army states that there will be 2 blimps eventually: 1 to scan around the clock, and 1 to target return missiles at any detected threat.

Maj. Elizabeth Kreft states that “The JLENS radar and current exercise were designed to look for threats like cruise missiles and it simply cannot see human beings”.  Do you believe her? Or do you think the government is once again assaulting our individual rights in the name of defense?

“That’s the kind of massive persistent surveillance we’ve always been concerned about with drones,” said Jay Stanley, a privacy expert for the American Civil Liberties Union. “It’s part of this trend we’ve seen since 9/11, which is the turning inward of all of these surveillance technologies.”

Putting privacy issues aside, let’s turn to the efficacy of this project. JLENS has been touted as “proven” and “capable” by the Raytheon Co., the Pentagon’s lead contractor for JLENS. But upon taking a closer look, JLENS actually fits the classic definition of what defense specialists call a “zombie” program. It is costly, it is ineffective, and it will drag on for decades – sucking our tax dollars and threatening our privacy.

Let’s take a closer look at the program’s performance:

  • It has been reported that during field tests, JLENS has failed to distinguish between an enemy aircraft and a friendly aircraft. I am sorry, but isn’t that the entire point of the project? To alert our government to incoming threats?
  • During tests completed in 2012, the Pentagon’s Operational Test and Evaluation office rated the program as “poor” in 4 critical performance areas.  If you were to routinely fail at 4 critical performance areas of your job, you would be terminated, just like this blimp should be.
  • As of August 2015, the radar has never been able to provide continuous 30-day surveillance as it is supposed to.
  • Software glitches have prevented JLENS from communicating with national air defense networks. Given that the main purpose is allegedly to alert security breaches to authorities, this is a critical fail.
  • The blimp has been grounded during bad weather, although it is supposedly hurricane resistant, which means if deployed in combat zones, $2.7 billion dollars just became completely useless.
  • Say that all of these issues were fixed, the cost of stationing these airships along all of our borders is prohibitively expensive.

After reading all of that, you would think the government would take a look at this program and perhaps revisit its sustainability. But, no, Congress and the highest level officers of the military have all given the OK for this program to continue sucking every last penny from taxpayers. When Army officials tried to kill JLENS in 2010, Raytheon Co. unleashed an impressive team of lobbyists to win back congressional favor. Marine Corps Gen. James E. “Hoss” Cartwright, who was the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff came forward as well and insisted that the program was the best option in enhancing the nation’s air defense.  Cartwright’s plea succeeded, and a trial run was approved in 2011. By 2014, Cartwright was on the board of directors at Raytheon Co. and had received over $828,000 in cash and stocks.

After examining the history and performance of JLENS, it becomes clear that it is just another example of big military spending with the empty promise of keeping us safe. All JLENS really is is an opportunity to just spy on us and cost us billions in tax money.


Kristen Anderson writes for

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