26 September 2015
WASHINGTON - Unknown to most Americans, the Pentagon has spent $2.7 billion developing a system of giant radar-equipped blimps to provide an early warning if the country were ever attacked with cruise missiles, drones or other low-flying weapons.
After nearly two decades of disappointment and delay, the system — known as JLENS — had a chance to prove its worth on April 15.
That day, a Florida postal worker flew a single-seat, rotary-wing aircraft into the heart of the nation’s capital to dramatize his demand for campaign finance reform.
JLENS is intended to spot just such a tree-skimming intruder, and two of the blimps were supposed to be standing sentry above the capital region. Yet 61-year-old Douglas Hughes flew undetected through 30 miles of highly restricted airspace before landing on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol.
At a congressional hearing soon afterward, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, demanded to know how “a dude in a gyrocopter 100 feet in the air” was able to pull off such an audacious stunt.
“Whose job is it to detect him?” Chaffetz asked.
It was JLENS’ job, but the system was “not operational” that day, as the head of the North American Aerospace Defense Command, Adm. William E. Gortney, told Chaffetz. The admiral offered no estimate for when it would be.
Seventeen years after its birth, JLENS is a stark example of what defense specialists call a “zombie” program: costly, ineffectual and seemingly impossible to kill.
In videos and news releases, Raytheon Co., the Pentagon’s lead contractor for JLENS, has asserted that the system is “proven,” “capable,” “performing well right now” and “ready to deploy today.”
The Los Angeles Times found otherwise:
These findings emerged from a review of reports by the Pentagon testing office and the U.S. Government Accountability Office and from interviews with defense scientists and active and retired military officers.
Despite the system’s documented shortcomings, Raytheon and other backers of JLENS have marshaled support in Congress and at the highest levels of the military to keep taxpayer money flowing to the program.
They have done so in part by depicting JLENS as the answer to an ever-evolving list of threats: cruise missiles, drones and other small aircraft, “swarming” boats, even explosives-laden trucks.
Army leaders tried to kill JLENS in 2010, The Times learned. What happened next illustrates the difficulty of extinguishing even a deeply troubled defense program.
Raytheon mobilized its congressional lobbyists. Within the Pentagon, Marine Corps Gen. James E. “Hoss” Cartwright, then vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, came to JLENS’ defense, arguing that it held promise for enhancing the nation’s air defenses.
At Cartwright’s urging, money was found in 2011 for a trial run of the technology in the skies above Washington, D.C.
Cartwright retired the same year — and joined Raytheon’s board of directors five months later. As of the end of 2014, Raytheon had paid him more than $828,000 in cash and stock for serving as a director, Securities and Exchange Commission records show.
The Times sought comment from
Raytheon and an opportunity to
interview company officials about JLENS.
In response, spokeswoman Keri S.
Connors said by email that Raytheon
“declines to participate in the story.”
Philip E. Coyle III, who oversaw assessments of dozens of major weapons systems as the Pentagon’s director of operational testing from 1994 to 2001, said Congress should closely examine whether JLENS deserves any more taxpayer dollars.
The cost of a blimp-borne radar network extensive enough to defend the nation against cruise missiles “would be enormous,” Coyle said in an interview.
“When you look at the full system — all the pieces that are required — that’s when it gets really daunting,” he said.
JLENS is short for Joint Land Attack
Cruise Missile Defense.