by JOSEPH TREVITHICK
On Oct. 28, two F-16 fighter jets from the New Jersey Air National Guard took off and headed for eastern Pennsylvania. Their mission — intercept a rogue U.S. Army missile defense blimp that had broken loose from its moorings.
One can only guess what the pilots were thinking as they watched the white, inflatable blob drift across the countryside. The aviators from the 177th Fighter Wing might have been shocked to see the airship’s cable, still attached to its tether, dragging across open pastures and knocking down power lines. In a trip covering some 160 miles, the nearly 7,000-foot cable caused blackouts across Pennsylvania’s Dauphin and Lancaster counties.
Did the F-16 pilots joke with each other and air traffic controllers on the ground? Did they keep it strictly business? After training to intercept dangerous or suspicious aircraft, the whole event might have seemed a little absurd.
We wanted to find out, so War Is Boring put in a Freedom of Information Act request for the radio chatter. But on Dec. 15, the Pentagon’s top command for North America said no audio logs would be heading our way.
The reason is frankly absurd — for one, it involves Canada, which isn’t directly involved with the blimp — and illustrates how difficult it can be to pry information from the military … especially when it comes to accidents in American skies.
The Army’s blimp — technically a “tethered aerostat” — is officially known as the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System, or JLENS.
“JLENS is a NORAD mission,” Army Maj. Gen. Charles Luckey, the chief of staff for the Pentagon’s top command for North America, explained in a formal response to our request dated Dec. 14.
“NORAD … is not subject to FOIA.”
The North American Aerospace Defense Command is a bi-national organization responsible for protecting American and Canadian skies from intruders. And because Canada is a member, NORAD is legally beyond FOIA’s reach.
“Therefore no search of NORAD records was conducted,” Luckey added.
During the Cold War, the arrangement allowed both countries to share the burden of guarding the continent’s skies from a potential Soviet nuclear strike. Still operating today, the head of the command is always an American officer, and the deputy commander is likewise Canadian.
However, this fact puts any JLENS records in a weird bureaucratic limbo. A U.S. military blimp goes renegade over American soil, and details about the response are not open to the American public for review. And the F-16s — also defending American airspace — were working for NORAD when they pursued their slow-moving target.
In any case, the mishap was bad news for JLENS.
The U.S. Army operates the 7,000-pound, 242-foot-long blimps and the Pentagon oversees the project, which originally envisioned a network of the airships along America’s coasts, each carrying a powerful radar.
In theory, with VHF-band sensors, the blimps will spot fast-flying cruise missiles more than 300 miles away. After detecting the incoming weapons, an X-band unit will help guide surface-to-air missiles to knock them out of the sky.
Since the very beginning, legislators and experts have questioned the plan. North Korea or Iran — commonly cited potential opponents — lack submarines or other ships that can travel far enough to threaten this sort of attack … or enough of them to pose a realistic danger.
After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Pentagon explained how JLENS might be able to help spot hijacked or other suspicious aircraft. The blimps can reportedly spot vehicles on the ground nearly 150 miles away, too, the Army told the Washington Post in 2014.
With the recent chill in Washington’s relationship with Moscow, the Pentagon has again cited the threat of cruise missiles to the nation’s coastal regions. Since October, the Kremlin has showed off these weapons in its intervention in Syria.
“Russia is progressing toward its goal of deploying long-range, conventionally-armed cruise missiles with ever increasing stand-off launch distances on its heavy bombers, submarines, and surface combatants,” U.S. Navy Adm. William Gortney, head of Northern Command, told legislators on March 19.
“Should these trends continue, over time NORAD will face increased risk in our ability to defend North America against Russian cruise missile threats.”
None of this has helped unite Congress in support of JLENS.
The blimps have been beset by malfunctions, limited by the weather and proved incapable of detecting a errant postal worker flying a small gyrocopter into Washington, D.C., according to an extensive report by the Los Angeles Times. Five years ago, a prototype crashed after becoming untethered in a storm.
Since 1998, the Pentagon has paid Raytheon and other defense contractors nearly $3 billion to work on the airship and its sensors. The Army only has two blimps at Aberdeen. After the October voyage across the Pennsylvania countryside, the program’s future is uncertain.
And we may never know if the New Jersey-based F-16 pilots felt at all ridiculous having to chase down a blimp that was supposed to be protecting Americans from runaway flying machines.
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