The U.S. military has two giant unmanned surveillance blimps it uses to watch the East coast from a base in Maryland. And one of them escaped its tethering Wednesday and floated aimlessly over Pennsylvania, downing power lines and cutting off electricity for tens of thousands of residents.
The incident started shortly after noon, when the blimp became detached from its anchor, NORAD said. Two F-16 fighter jets were scrambled to ensure it didn’t collide with other aircraft. By the late afternoon, the dirigible had come down to the ground, but not before leaving a trail of damage in its wake.
It was unclear how the aerostat got loose and how it eventually came down, John Cornelio, a spokesman for NORAD, said. He added it was possible that the helium could have just run out.
“We can assume that an aerostat like this will eventually come back to Earth,” he said.
The blimp wreaked plenty of havoc. Frederick Hunsinger, the Public Safety Director for Columbia County, PA, said in an interview that the blimp’s heavy tether dragged 20 miles across his county. While there were no injuries within county borders, the damage caused 35,000 to lose electricity, he said. Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania canceled classes as a result; 9-1-1 phone lines were overwhelmed.
“It was a lot of chaos, initially,” Hunsinger said. “It pulled down powerlines and utility poles.”
Known as the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System, or JLENS, the blimp is technically an “aerostat” — a term for a lighter than air craft tethered to the ground. The $2.7 billion program is on a three-year test run to see if it can help detect cruise missiles or enemy aircraft from 10,000 feet above ground.
This type of aircraft has been used for surveillance by the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan. And while the spectacle of a listing blimp bumbling across Pennsylvania lit up television networks and the Internet, the incident is also renewing questions among privacy advocates and others over why such technology was being brought back to the homeland.
Technologies developed for battlefields — weapons, vehicles, communications systems — long have flowed homeward as overseas conflicts have ended. The battles that followed the Sept. 11 attacks have produced major advances in surveillance equipment whose manufacturers increasingly are looking to expand their use within the United States.
“It’s a reminder that our military is bringing a lot of powerful surveillance tech it developed for battlegrounds back to America,” said Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union. “In some ways it’s a perfect metaphor for the surveillance state we have — hugely expensive and totally out of control.”
“And it seems that people in charge of mooring the thing could also do with some oversight,” he added.
The aerostats were set aloft on Army-owned land about 45 miles northeast of Washington, near Aberdeen Proving Ground. From its vantage point, they could cast a vast radar net from Raleigh, N.C., to Boston and out to Lake Erie, with the goal of detecting cruise missiles or enemy aircraft so they could be intercepted before reaching the capital.
The idea of a runaway surveillance blimp set social media afire. Even Edward Snowden, the former government contractor who revealed the extent of government spying, weighed in from his asylum in Russia:
I should know better by now, but even I still have trouble believing that “runaway surveillance blimp” is actually a thing.
— Edward Snowden (@Snowden) October 28, 2015
Aerostats deployed by the military at U.S. bases in Iraq and Afghanistan typically carried powerful surveillance cameras as well, to track the movements of suspected insurgents and even U.S. soldiers. When Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales murdered 16 civilians in Kandahar in March 2012, an aerostat above his base captured video of him returning from the slaughter in the early-morning darkness with a rifle in his hand and a shawl over his shoulders.
The Army has said that the purpose of the radars on the JLENS in Maryland is to protect the U.S. from missiles and attack jets—not to monitor individuals. In a statement to The Post last year, the Army said that “the primary mission…is to track airborne objects. Its secondary mission is to track surface moving objects such as vehicles or boats. The capability to track surface objects does not extend to individual people.”
Built by Raytheon, the helium-filled balloons are 74 meters long, or three-quarters the length of a football field. Raytheon says that the chance of the tether breaking “is very small” because it is made of a strong fiber known as Vectran that the company says “has withstood storms in excess of 100 knots.”
The tether isn’t only to keep the blimps from floating away; they carry power up to the radar and then transmit data to a computer on the ground.
While a breakaway is “unlikely,” Raytheon said, if one does get loose, “there are a number of procedures and systems in place, which are designed to bring the aerostat down in a safe manner.”
Like many highly technical defense programs, JLENS has suffered “cost increases and schedule delays due to setbacks in development,” according to the Government Accountability Office, which said that the total program cost was $2.7 billion.
After facing problems, defense officials conducted reviews of the program in an attempt to “verify that design risks have been minimized,” the GAO said.
John Pike, a defense analyst at globalsecurity.org, said it’s no surprise that the program has run into problems. “All of these things are protracted and troubled,” he said. “All of them are capabilities in search of missions.”
But he said that the system “is a real solution to a real threat. … Everyone has drunk the kool-aid on missile defense.”
A Raytheon spokesman declined to comment on the system Wednesday.
Hovering over the busy Baltimore Washington corridor the appearance of the balloons quickly raised privacy concerns among civil libertarians, and others, who feared they could be used to spy on U.S. citizens.
The aerostats have a radar capable of detecting airborne objects from up to 340 miles away and vehicles on the surface from up to 140 miles away — as far south as Richmond, as far west as Cumberland, Md., and as far north as Staten Island. The Army declined to say what size vehicles can be sensed from those distances.
And in 2013, defense contractor Raytheon touted an exercise in which it outfitted the aerostats planned for deployment in suburban Baltimore with one of the company’s most powerful high-altitude surveillance systems, capable of spotting individual people and vehicles from a distance of many miles.
Aerostats — basically big balloons on strings — grew popular in Iraq and Afghanistan and also are used by Israel to monitor the Gaza Strip and by the United States to eye movement along southern border areas. Even a rifle shot through an aerostat will not bring it down, because the pressure of the helium inside nearly matches the pressure of the air outside, preventing rapid deflation.