Utah’s military blimps ... make that balloons, going to Maryland
Radar • The project, called JLENS, will participate in a three-year exercise there.
Published: January 19, 2014 09:19PM
Updated: January 19, 2014 10:06AM
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| Courtesy Raytheon Co. This undated photo is of an aerostat, a blimp-like balloon tethered to the ground at the U.S. Army's Dugway Proving Ground west of Salt Lake City. The Army is testing the ability of radar-equipped aerostats to detect, track and shoot down missiles. The tests involve unmanned drones, however, rather than missiles.

Next time you see those strange blimps above the west desert, get a good look. They won’t be there much longer.

Actually, they’re balloons. And instead of tracking drones — and intriguing drivers — along Interstate 80, later this year they will be deployed near Baltimore and tested to see if it can detect incoming missiles and other threats. Boyd D. Collins, a spokesman for the Army’s Cruise Missile Defense Systems Project Office, said the devices will remain in Utah until June and could be in the air periodically until then before being moved to the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland.

There, the devices will be tested in a three-year exercise monitoring against threats and providing data to an intelligence network.

The two balloons comprise the Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System, or JLENS. Or, as so many Utahns called them, the blimps.

JLENS is a radar system designed to detect airborne as well as land and sea threats. Its 243-foot balloon can elevate to 10,000 feet but is tethered to the ground. It can provide 340 miles of radar coverage. For about three years, Raytheon Co. tested it in the Utah desert, about 16 miles north of I-80 between Salt Lake City and Wendover. Its testing included the tracking of drones and other airborne objects posing as cruise missiles over U.S. Army Dugway Proving Ground and the Air Force’s Utah Test and Training Range.

Air Force Maj. Jamie Humphries of U.S. Northern Command said the new JLENS exercise is scheduled to begin about Oct. 1. But Kelly Luster, a spokesman for Aberdeen Proving Ground, said that date wasn’t set yet.

Luster said construction and environmental assessments must be completed before the exercise can begin.

In Maryland, JLENS will be deployed 24 hours a day and will return to the ground only occasionally for maintenance or to avoid severe weather, Humphries said.

JLENS has “already demonstrated the capability to detect and track a number of different systems,” Humphries said Wednesday.

Humphries said the military plans to inform the public around Aberdeen before it launches JLENS there.

“We want people to know about this when we put it up for the first time,” he said.

Raytheon received a $1.4 billion Army contract for the project in 2007, though Humprhies said $2.7 billion has been budgeted for research development, test and evaluation.

ncarlisle@sltrib.com

Twitter: @natecarlisle