Now that they’re done tracking Santa for the year, NORAD can buckle down and focus on their primary spy in the sky.
Just before the end of 2014, the U.S. Army launched a giant blimp over the Aberdeen Proving Ground. Developed by Raytheon, the 250-foot Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor (JLENS) is flying at 10,000 feet above Baltimore. It can stay aloft for a month.
Technically called an aerostat since it is tethered to the ground, JLENS is equipped with radar that is designed to detect cruise missiles, drones and any other potentially threatening aircraft. Currently in a three-year testing period, the Army is primarily concerned with defending Washington, D.C., but JLENS can patrol an area the size of Texas. In East Coast terms, that means they system will cover from upstate New York to Norfolk, Va.
“JLENS can detect potential threats at extremely long ranges, giving North American Aerospace Defense Command [NORAD] more time to make decisions and more space to react appropriately,” Dave Gulla, vice president of Raytheon Integrated Defense Systems’ Global Integrated Sensors division, said in a statement.
Raytheon will deploy a second aerostat in early 2015. When the billion-dollar JLENS system is fully functional, the two blimps work together and share information with NORAD. Ideally, the info would then be used to bring down the cruise missile or drone.
The two blimps have different radars. “It is based on who can get the best shot possible,” Maj. Gen. Glenn Bramhall said during a press briefing on Dec. 17.
While they’re being called surveillance blimps, JLENS isn’t equipped with cameras or video equipment. And, despite the proximity to Fort Meade, the NSA isn’t involved (at least as far as we know).
“Its radars cannot detect people,” said Army Capt. Matt Villa.