Runaway blimps

By Ray Starmann

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My interest in blimps really began in the mid-1970’s, when as a kid I listened to Frank Ward, a WWII vet and the summer camp coach, regale to us his eyewitness account of watching the Hindenburg burst into flames. As a teenager, Ward was working on the field that day in New Jersey, when the hydrogen-filled German dirigible came in for a landing and exploded into the history books.

This week a modern-day US Army blimp, flying at 6,800 feet, broke free from its mooring in Aberdeen, Maryland and drifted 200 miles north into Pennsylvania, dragging a 6,000 foot long cable, before it was brought down by shotgun rounds into a grove of trees.

In typical Pentagon double-speak, US Navy Captain Jeff Davis (no relation to the Confederate States of American president) stated that, “I am not able to give you the mechanics of exactly how they’re deflating it.”

USDW is able to give you the mechanics of exactly how it was deflated. It was deflated the old-fashioned way, courtesy of Remington.

The blimp, formally known as an aerostat, was part of a three-year research project for the JLENS program, which stands for Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System.

According to Raytheon, which manufactures the system, “JLENS is designed to spot any aircraft, drones or cruise missiles that pose a significant threat to people, population centers, key infrastructure and our military. JLENS, is a system of two aerostats, or tethered airships, that float 10,000 feet in the air. The helium filled aerostats, each nearly as long as a football field, carry powerful radars that can protect a territory roughly the size of Texas from airborne threats.”

“JLENS provides 360-degrees of defensive radar coverage and can detect and track objects like missiles, and manned and unmanned aircraft from up to 340 miles away. JLENS can also remain aloft and operational for up to 30 days at a time. This capability gives defenders more time and more distance to:”

  • Identify potential threats
  • Make critical decisions
  • Conduct crucial notifications

“JLENS allows the military to safeguard hundreds of miles of territory at a fraction of the cost of fixed wing aircraft, and it can integrate with defensive systems including:”

“One JLENS system, known as an orbit, can provide the same 24/7 coverage for a 30-day period that 4-5 fixed wing surveillance aircraft (AWACS, JSTARS or E-2C) can provide.”

  • Depending on the kind of aircraft used, a fixed-wing surveillance aircraft is 500-700% more expensive to operate than a JLENS during that same time period because of manpower, maintenance and fuel costs.
  • A JLENS orbit uses less than 50% of the manpower it requires to fly a fixed wing aircraft.

The use of blimps for military purposes is nothing new. Observation balloons were used during the Civil War by both sides. In World War I, the Germans used the famous Zeppelins to conduct air attacks on Allied forces and on cities in England and Poland. In World War II, the US Navy utilized airships to conduct anti-submarine patrols in the Atlantic.

While the JLENS technology is futuristic, isn’t the aerial platform itself, completely obsolete and even more importantly, vulnerable to just about every enemy weapons system from a SU-34 to a 8 year boy with a pumped up pellet gun?

Blimps invoke images of George Peppard in “The Blue Max” diving in for a gun run on a panic stricken British observation blimp or Snoopy and his imaginary WWI Sopwith Camel battling a blimp over Flanders.

No doubt the technology is cool and yes, in peacetime, they are cheaper to operate than fixed-wing aircraft. But, with their immense vulnerability at $235 million a pop, are they that cost effective? How many blimps does the Pentagon imagine using in a war? We could lose ten blimps a day in a conflict. That’s $2.35 billion a day for blimps.

Has the Pentagon thought this one through? Has anyone in the Pentagon done some blimp-arithmetic?

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