U.S. Army Displays JLens Aerostat for East Coast Coverage

 - December 18, 2014, 12:41 PM
Lt. Col. William Pitts stands in front of the JLens aerostat at Aberdeen Proving Ground. (Photo: Bill Carey)

The U.S. Army displayed the first aerostat of the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor (JLens) system it plans to position over the mid-Atlantic region for a three-year evaluation of its potential for tracking airborne threats. The Army invited reporters to view the inflated aerostat on December 17, and planned to launch it within days from Aberdeen Proving Ground north of Baltimore.

The North American Aerospace Defense Command (Norad) will evaluate the Raytheon system’s contribution to radar and aerial surveillance of its Eastern Air Defense Sector, which is managed from Rome, N.Y. A JLens system, or “orbit,” consists of two helium-filled, tethered aerostats: one carrying a 360-degree VHF surveillance radar, the other an X-band fire-control radar, with supporting control and data-processing stations. Once the surveillance radar detects an airborne threat, ground operators slew the fire-control aerostat to the area to provide precise targeting information for aircraft-launched munitions, ground-based air defense systems or possibly an Aegis cruiser or destroyer. The aerostats will fly as high as 10,000 feet above sea level for 30 days at a time, coming down only for maintenance or in the event of severe weather.

Army officers said the system’s primary focus is to defend against cruise missiles by providing “persistent” wide-area surveillance coverage. The alternative is to deploy manned E-3 Sentry airborne warning and control (Awacs) or E-2 Hawkeye early-warning aircraft. “If you look at other platforms that we have to replace JLens, you’re looking at very expensive platforms,” said Maj. Gen. Glenn Bramhall, commander of the 263rd Army Air and Missile Defense Command. “So [for] persistence, as far as we look at it, 30 days [of JLens deployment] is so much better and cheaper than flying Awacs.”

Bramhall said a key test objective will be to integrate data from JLens with the existing Norad air defense system, which will conduct exercises during the system’s evaluation. In 2012, Raytheon demonstrated JLens interoperability with the Patriot anti-missile system to detect, track and shoot down a target drone simulating a cruise missile at the Utah Training and Test Range west of Salt Lake City. The Army used JLensto track multiple speed boats conducting maneuvers on Great Salt Lake. Budget cuts have reduced the program from the original 16 planned orbits to two engineering and development systems.

The Army planned to launch the first aerostat from a mobile mooring station at Graces Quarters, a peninsula and former chemical weapons testing area in the Chesapeake Bay region that is part of Aberdeen Proving Ground (APG). It will launch the second aerostat from the Edgewood Section of the installation, about five miles away, by early 2015. The aerostats will be held aloft within existing, special-use airspace the Federal Aviation Administration enforces, providing vision over an area extending as far south as Norfolk, Va., and as far north as upstate New York and eastern Massachusetts, officers said.

Mindful of the concerns civil liberties organizations such as the Electronic Privacy Information Center have raised over privacy, officers took pains to explain the mission. “I can’t stress enough there are absolutely no cameras or video equipment on board the JLens system,” said National Guard Capt. Matt Villa, the system’s planning and coordination officer at APG. “Its radars cannot detect people. It does not store information; it only feeds information in real-time to Norad. It has no weapons on board and lastly, there are never any people in the aerostat when it’s aloft.”

According to Bramhall: “The mission is not to spy on U.S. citizens. It is not designed for that. It does not have cameras on it. It does not have the ability to record phone conversations or take pictures. It is strictly a national asset that we use to defend the East Coast.”

Regarding the safety of the system, Villa said the chance of a tether breaking “is less than one in a million. It has never happened before, but nonetheless we have rehearsed with local first responders what to do in case of a tether break.”