Unknown to most Americans, the Pentagon has spent $2.7 billion developing a system of giant radar-equipped blimps to provide an early warning if the country were ever attacked with cruise missiles, drones or other low-flying weapons.
After nearly two decades of disappointment and delay, the system — known as JLENS — had a chance to prove its worth on April 15.
That day, a Florida postal worker flew a single-seat, rotary-wing aircraft into the heart of the nation’s capital to dramatize his demand for campaign finance reform.
JLENS is intended to spot just such a tree-skimming intruder, and two of the blimps were supposed to be standing sentry above the capital region. Yet 61-year-old Douglas Hughes flew undetected through 30 miles of highly restricted airspace before landing on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol.
Philip E. Coyle III, who oversaw assessments of dozens of major weapons systems as the Pentagon’s director of operational testing from 1994 to 2001, said Congress should closely examine whether JLENS deserves any more taxpayer dollars.
The cost of a blimp-borne radar network extensive enough to defend the nation against cruise missiles “would be enormous,” Coyle said in an interview.
“When you look at the full system — all the pieces that are required — that’s when it gets really daunting,” he said.