The U.S. military is just days away from the first real-world deployment of two huge radar-laden blimps meant to spot air- and seaborne threats from distances of up to hundreds of miles.

Sometime next week, weather permitting, the military will launch the blimps, known as the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System, or JLENS, from the U.S. Army’s Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. Designed to patrol the eastern seaboard from an altitude of up to 10,000 feet, JLENS is made up of two blimps, each equipped with a different radar system, which can spot potential incoming threats from up to 340 miles away.

The program is the only one of its kind, and offers military planners the promise, in a pair of airships, of the kind of long-term, uninterrupted defensive capabilities that would today require at least five early-warning aircraft. JLENS is also thought to provide substantially more notice than is possible from standard early-warning planes

For the last three years, the Army has been testing the 243-feet-long, helium-filled, tethered blimps in the skies over its Dugway Proving Ground in the deserts of western Utah, putting it through various simulated attacks. But now, JLENS is leaving simulations behind in order to watch over an area that spans from Norfolk, Va., to southeastern Massachusetts, which, crucially, includes Washington, D.C.

JLENS is armed with both a surveillance radar that can detect everything from boats to airplanes to drones, and even trucks and cars, and a fire-control radar that integrates with the military’s major missile systems. Each blimp carries one radar system.

Doug Burgess, the JLENS program director at Raytheon, the defense contractor behind the project, told VentureBeat that development of the blimps wrapped up a year ago, and that it had successfully proven they could integrate with air-to-air missiles from the Army’s Patriot to the Air Force’s Amraam to the Navy’s SM-6.

By placing radar systems up to 10,000 feet in the sky, JLENS provides 340 miles of threat detection.

Above: By placing radar systems up to 10,000 feet in the sky, JLENS provides 340 miles of threat detection.

Image Credit: Raytheon

According to Burgess, Army soldiers will operate JLENS during the three-year Aberdeen test, and it will be evaluated based on the answer to the question, “How is it contributing to the homeland defense?” He added that the U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM) and the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), the joint American and Canadian organizations tasked with defending North American territory, will ultimately decide if JLENS was a success. If so, it could then be deployed in any of countless locations around the world where the U.S. military wants a strategic asset capable of monitoring for incoming attacks and coordinating air-to-air responses to such threats.

Of course, like any expensive military project — and at a projected cost of $2.78 billion, JLENS is definitely pricey — its future is subject to the whims of many in and around official Washington, not the least of whom are members of Congress. The program will no doubt face close scrutiny from budget officials, who will want to know that it has been a good investment. If not, it could go the way of long-since abandoned military airships.

To some, the idea of blimps high in the sky protecting America’s coastline is absurd, and others have charged that JLENS is meant to watch not foreign threats, but American citizens. Raytheon and the military are quick to dispute that notion, saying that because there are no cameras or infrared systems on board, JLENS is incapable of tracking people, or even individual vehicles. What it should be able to do, proponents argue, is track things like the kinds of rogue airliners that attacked New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001.

And to some military experts, it’s not such a stretch to imagine American coastlines being targeted again, perhaps even by a hostile sovereign enemy. “In view of the recent incursions in international airspace by Russian bombers off Newfoundland, California, and Alaska,” said Chet Nagle, an expert on counterterrorism and covert operations, “it would be a comfort to people in the eastern U.S. that we have the capability” of defending ourselves.

Chet Nagle.

Above: Chet Nagle

Image Credit: Chet Nagle

Nagle, a former naval aviator and agent at the Central Intelligence Agency, is a director of the Committee on the Present Danger, a non-partisan organization that promotes a strong national defense against terrorism. Unaffiliated with the JLENS program, he is a big fan. “We don’t have anything [else] remotely like it,” said Nagle. “I personally wish we had 10 [JLENS blimps] to deploy right now, because it would be adding a lot of safety in hot-spots around the world.”

Added Nagle, “The system has been requested by every combat commander abroad” and that positioning JLENS in the Middle East could provide military planners with defense surveillance abilities in and around the Strait of Hormuz, a key passage for oil tankers. He said Iran has threatened to close the Strait, and that JLENS “would give a commander a 340-mile look so he’d have time to see [an] incoming threat” there.

Being able to take advantage of the curvature of the Earth is a big reason behind putting sophisticated radar systems like those on-board JLENS in the air. The higher the radar’s altitude, the farther it can see.

In the meantime, although bad weather may sometimes force the blimps back to ground-level, it’s considered highly unlikely that even the heaviest winds could damage the airships. Their tethers are made from a high-strength fiber known as Vectran and are said by Raytheon to have withstood winds of up to 115 miles an hour.

In the end, everyone hopes that JLENS will never have any actual threats to track, but if it does, the military is confident the system will be up to the task. Nagle believes it will be, and wants everyone gets behind it. “Joe Taxpayer on the ground, has this idea that there’s this iron dome [protecting] the U.S.,” Nagle said. “He’s got to understand that JLENS is what we’ve got to answer a threat from cruise missiles and rogue aircraft. They should understand that, and support getting more of these systems.”