JLENS: controversial spy blimp takes to the skies
On 27 December, the US Army’s newest aerial surveillance asset took to the skies over Maryland on the US East Coast. Talk to the army, and JLENS is a tethered aerostat that floats 10,000ft in the air carrying powerful radar systems to provide defensive radar coverage over an area roughly the size of Texas; talk to the sceptics, and JLENS is a giant ‘spy blimp’, being launched into the skies above Washington DC to the detriment of personal privacy. So – which is it? Claire Apthorp reports.
Following its launch on 27 December, JLENS's radar began operating on 2 January. Handover to the US Army took place three days later on 5 January, kicking off a three-year operational exercise that will assess the system's ability to provide data to North American air defence systems.
JLENS, which stands for Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System, has been in development with Raytheon since the mid-2000s, but its genesis reaches back to the 1990s when the US Army established a technology programme of interest with the intention of developing aerostat technologies capable of detecting aerial threats at significant distances.
Today's system consists of two 74m-long helium-filled tethered aerostats - orbits - that float at 10,000ft carrying radar payloads; one carrying a 360-degree surveillance radar, and the other carrying a fire control radar. Together the orbits create a surveillance solution that can detect airborne threats, including cruise missiles, manned and unmanned aircraft, up to 340 miles away, providing precise locating data to command and control operators.
Capable of remaining aloft for 30 days at a time, JLENS provides persistent surveillance at a much lower cost and manpower requirement than its manned surveillance aircraft counterparts, such as the US military's AWACS, JSTARS or E-C2 aircraft.
Three years of testing
Throughout its development period, Raytheon has conducted a significant amount of testing to demonstrate JLENS's threat detection capabilities in preparation for its deployment.
Unmanned aerial systems (UAS) have already transformed military operations but an ambitious new project from DARPA could take the capability even further.
"During development we developed and built two systems, with one operating in Utah for almost three years while we tested everything there is to test - what it can see, what it can track - and really wrung the system out in terms of what it can do and how it can operate," says Doug Burgess, JLENS program director at Raytheon.
"Major intercept tests have been carried out that saw JLENS data used with the Patriot missile system to engage threats, and similar testing has been conducted with Standard Missile 6, and AMRAAM - all the tests were successful."
The Patriot integration testing saw the JLENS surveillance system detect and track a long-range threat - in this case a target drone simulating a hostile cruise missile - and then cue the fire control radar. In turn, the fire control radar was tested on its ability to track and transmit target data to Patriot computers.
Similarly, during AMRAAM testing, JLENS showed it was able to cue defensive assets in response to aerial threats. JLENS acquired and tracked an anti-ship cruise missile surrogate and passed targeting data to a US Air Force F-15E via Link 16, enabling the fighter pilot to fire an AIM-120C7 AMRAAM.
The Standard Missile-6 integration also successfully demonstrated the system's ability to defeat anti-ship cruise missiles, acquiring and tracking a surrogate anti-ship cruise missile target and passing the track information to sailors via the Raytheon-made cooperative engagement capability (CEC) sensor-netting system. JLENS then provided targeting information via CEC to the Aegis weapon system until the SM-6's onboard radar was able to acquire and track the target.
The first orbit 1 will be joined in the spring by a second aerostat carrying the fire control radar. Together, they will be operated by soldiers of A Battery, 3rd Air Defense Artillery for the three-year operational exercise, which is scheduled to end in September 2017.
The army will conduct real-world environment exploration of JLENS' capabilities during this three-year exercise. The central goal is to assess the system's ability to integrate with North American Aerospace Defense Command's (NORAD's) defence architecture in order to support NORAD's homeland defence mission as the organisation responsible for aerospace warning, aerospace control and maritime warning for North America.
Raytheon has already conducted laboratory testing that showed that information from the JLENS sensors could be converted into a format than can be used by NORAD's command and control (C2) systems; and according to Burgess, real data from the surveillance payload in Maryland is currently being provided to the NORAD architecture.
"Right now it's being checked out and eventually the decision will be made that the data will really go to the NORAD operators when they give it the thumbs up - which I think will be shortly, it's more a formality at this point," says Burgess.
The hope is that the integration with NORAD will provide the US military with a more accurate picture of the regional airspace over Washington DC and give operators more time and distance to identify potential threats, make critical decisions, and deploy adequate defences.
"How much of an improvement JLENS will bring NORAD over existing radar systems is one of the key metrics that will be tested over the coming three years," he adds. "There have been simulations carried out and expectations set but they will determine how JLENS augments the systems already in place and what it sees that other sensors cannot see."
The system's coastal position in Maryland could also see the army utilise its maritime surface targeting capabilities. Raytheon has demonstrated the system's ability to protect strategic waterways by detecting, targeting and engaging swarming boats in simulated scenarios that saw vessels conducting tactical manoeuvres at low and high speeds. The test proved that JLENS was capable of detecting the vessels at long range even in congested environments.
Spy blimp? - strictly no
JLENS has the potential to greatly enhance the situational awareness picture in the Washington DC area, but critics of the system have been vocal, claiming that its surveillance capability benefits could come at the cost of the privacy of its citizens.
Raytheon UK has launched a highly interoperable ISR software platform that can pack multilayered intelligence capability into a laptop.
Although Raytheon has conducted company-funded testing of an MTS-B electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) sensor mounted on JLENS to demonstrate the possibility of using radar and EO/IR payloads to track surface targets, the army has no requirement for this payload type.
"There isn't any requirement for JLENS to carry cameras or any kind of personal identification equipment," Burgess says. "The payload requirement is strictly for radar that is designed to detect and track big, manmade objects - primarily cruise missiles, airplanes and helicopters."
In other words, JLENS carries radar; there is no camera onboard either of the orbits set to operate in Maryland. Radars can detect moving pieces of machinery - unmanned aerial vehicles, cars or boats - but it cannot see or track people. And even though it can 'see' vehicles, the way radar works means it is impossible to determine identifying characteristics of those vehicles, such as make, model or colour. That level of information is simply not needed to fulfil the JLENS mission requirement.
Raytheon suggests that the cost of operating large, fixed-wing surveillance aircraft is five to seven times greater than the cost of operating JLENS - an attractive prospect to any military. And as budget cuts bite and the army looks to do more with less, JLENS's ability to simultaneously track hundreds of threats and feed data into existing C2 architectures offers a certain value proposition.
verall, JLENS also looks good 'on paper'. Whether the system can now translate its demonstrated potential into real-world capability during testing and transition into an enduring mission come 2017 will be interesting to see.