Top commander defends blimp program


A top commander defended an embattled military blimp program Thursday as necessary to detect cruise missiles that countries such as Russia could use against the United States.

“It fills a gap — classified level I can’t say in this forum,” Adm. William Gortney, commander of U.S. Northern Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday. “It fills a gap, a capability gap that I do not have today, and so we look forward to restarting the JLENS programs after the very unfortunate mishap that we had.”

JLENS, short for Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System, has been in limbo since one of its blimps broke free and became a social media sensation.

In October, one of two blimps deployed in Maryland detached from its mooring and drifted to Pennsylvania, leaving a path of destruction in its wake.

An investigation determined the incident was the result of a combination of mishaps, including design, human and procedural issues.

The two JLENS blimps, also known as aerostats, float 10,000 feet in the air and carry powerful radars that detect airborne threats.

At the time of the incident, the aircraft were part of a three-year trial program at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland.

After the incident, some lawmakers deemed the $2.8 billion program a waste.

The program needs congressional approval to restart. Earlier this month, the Army submitted a request to Congress for $27.2 million to repair the damaged blimp, provide mitigation and training to prevent a similar incident and keep the trial program going.

Gortney said the Army has learned from its mistakes.

“We understand what happened,” he said. “We put in place the mitigation efforts, and we look forward to completing it. Should it bear out, it fills a gap that I do not have today against this particular threat.”

The particular threat Gortney highlighted was Russia’s cruise missiles. Russia has been using them in Syria to show the United States what it’s capable of, he said.

“The Russians are employing these cruise missiles in Syria today, both from bombers, ships and submarines,” he said. “There’s no operational or tactical requirement to do it. They’re messaging us that they have this capability and those missiles can have a nuclear-tipped or conventional warhead.”