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A giant military blimp escaped from Baltimore and is flying around the country

This is the blimp that escaped. The US military lost this thing.
This is the blimp that escaped. The US military lost this thing.
(Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.
  1. A 243-foot military blimp called a JLENS has come free of its tether in Maryland and is now floating out of control somewhere in Pennsylvania.
  2. JLENS stands for Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System. The gigantic balloon is designed to watch for incoming threats to the US homeland such as drones and cruise missiles.
  3. The JLENS slipped out of Maryland's Aberdeen Proving Ground, an hour outside Baltimore, at 11:54 am Eastern. It is still in the air, trailing 6,700 feet of cable across the Pennsylvania sky. The US military has dispatched two jets from Atlantic City Air Force Base to follow it.
  4. According to the Baltimore Sun, "Authorities warned anyone who sees the blimp to keep a safe distance and dial 911."
  5. Arms control expert Jeffrey Lewis wrote in January that the JLENS's deployment to Maryland could indicate that the US fears that Russian subs might park off the eastern coast.

This is the latest of many, many embarrassments for the troubled JLENS program

The JLENS program is 17 years old, and has cost roughly $2.7 billion. The basic idea behind it is that if you have these big ol' military blimps up in the sky equipped with radar, they'll catch any inbound attacks against homeland targets from low-flying threats such as drones or cruise missiles fired from nearby Russian subs. In other words, it fits into missile defense systems.

While parking humongous defense blimps on the American coastline may have sound like a good idea in theory to Pentagon planners, it's been a disaster in practice. A recent Los Angeles Times investigation into the program found that, among other problems:

  • "JLENS has struggled to track flying objects and to distinguish friendly aircraft from threatening ones."
  • "Software glitches have hobbled its ability to communicate with the nation's air-defense networks — a critical failing, given that JLENS' main purpose is to alert U.S. forces to incoming threats."
  • "It would be prohibitively expensive to deploy enough of the airships to protect the United States along its borders and coasts."

It is, the LA Times reporters conclude, "a stark example of what defense specialists call a 'zombie' program: costly, ineffectual and seemingly impossible to kill."

The fact that this JLENS — one of only two in operation on the East Coast — has decided to escape its tether and run wild is a perfect summation of the program. It's a gigantic, sky-high, runaway waste of taxpayers' money and the military's time.