In what may be the most bizarre and public crash of a multibillion-dollar Pentagon boondoggle ever, a surveillance blimp flying over an Army base in Maryland broke loose Wednesday afternoon, its 6,000-foot-long tether wreaking havoc on the countryside before it finally came down in pieces in Pennsylvania.
The giant airship — 80 yards long and about the size of three Goodyear blimps — was one of a pair that represented the last gasp of an 18-year, $2.7 billion program called JLENS or “Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System.”
There were once supposed to be 36 of them, their high-resolution 360-degree radar coverage up to 340 miles in any direction protecting the nation from cruise missiles.
But costs inflated, doubts about their utility mounted, and the program was scaled back and almost killed.
Blimps, it turns out, have had mixed success in purely military terms. When equipped with cameras, they are highly effective at conducting surveillance — but the Army promised there were no cameras on the JLENS blimps.
What blimps are best at is having a psychological effect: making people feel like they’re being watched.