Future of floating surveillance system in doubt

Photo copyright to Raytheon: JLENS detection system.

"Aerostat platforms" like this would be used in the planned Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System. (Image: Raytheon/JLENS)

An unmanned, blimp-based surveillance system intended to float above the National Capital Region may remain grounded by budget cuts, according to a privacy advocacy group that has been petitioning the federal government about its concerns with the system.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) says almost half of the $54 million the Army wants to use to launch a three-year test of the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System, or JLENS, over the Washington, D.C., area is in danger of being axed from the fiscal 2015 Defense spending bill.

According to Jeramie Scott, national security counsel for EPIC, the House versions of both the defense authorization and appropriations bills call for $25 million less than the $54 million requested for the program in President Barack Obama’s budget. The Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee will mark up its version of the bill July 15.

Sources on the Senate Armed Services Committee told FCW that the lower spending figure was possible, but it's far from clear what the final number will be as the appropriations process drags on, likely past the start of the new fiscal year on Oct. 1.

In the last year or so, EPIC and the American Civil Liberties Union have been hectoring the Army for more information concerning its planned JLENS trial in the Washington area, saying the unmanned aerial surveillance system could invade individuals’ privacy up and down the East Coast, depending on what kinds of surveillance technology is on board. The Army and others say such concerns are not valid.

JLENS includes two 250-foot long helium-filled "aerostat platforms," which float at 10,000 feet while tethered to special moorings on the ground. One aerostat conducts aerial and ground surveillance over a 340-mile range, while the other provides fire control capabilities. EPIC said it has repeatedly asked the Army for technical specifications as well as any policies limiting domestic surveillance, but contends the Army has not responded adequately.

The Army has said it wants the systems to augment Federal Aviation Administration radar, Homeland Security Department helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft that intercept suspicious slow, low-flying aircraft in the National Capital Region, which includes portions of Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia. The Army will maintain the JLENS system, which would be tethered at Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland during the trial period, which could begin after Oct. 1.

Capitol Hill sources disputed EPIC's assertions that the technology planned for the program could endanger anyone’s privacy. They said the aerostat is optimized to detect incoming aircraft, particularly cruise missiles that might be too fast and low on the horizon for ground-based radar to see. A radar package suspended in the air, they said, would look down on such aircraft, expanding the surveillance horizon.

According to Raytheon, JLENS' maker, the system provides 360 degrees of defensive radar coverage and can detect and track objects such as missiles and manned and unmanned aircraft from up to 340 miles away. The system can also remain aloft and operational for up to 30 days at a time, providing cost and operational efficiencies compared to airplanes and helicopters.

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a staff writer at FCW.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, tele.com magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at mrockwell@fcw.com or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.

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