To protect Washington from terrorists, the Army didn’t turn to some cutting-edge technology such as drones outfitted with spy cameras.
Instead, it opted for something out of the 18th century. Next year, the military plans on setting aloft high above the nation’s capital a pair of blimp-like helium balloons that look like they should be floating above Fenway Park advertising ice cream.
These vessels are more sophisticated than a Hood dirigible. Developed by Waltham defense contractor Raytheon Co., the aerostats, as they are called, are part of a multibillion-dollar surveillance system that can detect incoming rockets and give the military the ability to quickly shoot them down.
The Army manager for the aerostat project, Dean Barten, acknowledged that the balloons, nearly the size of a football field, are “old-school technology.” But equipped with today’s most advanced radar, and parked some 10,000 feet above the ground, the aerostats can pick out threats coming from any direction, as far away as 340 miles.
“That’s the size of Texas. These things can see a long way,” Barten said.
Currently, the military relies on an elaborate network of radar systems for domestic missile defenses, but none that have the breadth and reach coverage as the Raytheon blimps would provide over Washington, where Al Qaeda crashed a Boeing 757 on Sept. 11, 2001.
That sort of surveillance comes with a big price tag: More than $2 billion to develop the concept over eight years, a pair of aerostats cost in the neighborhood of $450 million. Even so, Barten said that’s a fraction of the cost of using radar planes to circle Washington nonstop.
“In big military terms, it’s dirt cheap,” Barten said.
After several recent successful tests, Raytheon announced in July that it was handing off the balloon surveillance program to the Army, for a three-year test over the nation’s capital from the Aberdeen Proving Ground military facility outside Washington, scheduled to begin next year.
But the blimps are flying square into a storm in Washington over the extent of snooping by federal agencies within the country’s borders.
Even though they are outfitted only with radar, critics of the government’s domestic surveillance worry that by adding cameras to the ships, they could become another way for US agencies to look over the shoulders of ordinary Americans.
“Given that the government has been less than honest about surveillance,” said Kade Crockford, director of the Technology for Liberty Project at the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, “this kind of program raises a lot of serious questions about the military’s involvement in domestic surveillance.”
Another skeptic is Georgetown University student Tyler Lopez, who helped start a blog, Skywatchdc, to monitor the development of the aerostat project over Washington.
“If they are able to see vehicles, they are able to see people,” Lopez said. “Do we want to live in a society in which we are watched all the time?”
But the military is emphatic about the limitations of the Washington aerostats.
“We’re not there to spy on people,” said Barten. “It’s the wrong technology for that.”
If the Army wanted to spy from aloft, he said, it would save a lot of money and use much smaller balloons with sophisticated cameras.
Raytheon also insists that the system, with the lengthy name of Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor system, or JLENS, was designed for radar only.
“We were contracted to build this very capable radar system, and that’s what it is,” said Raytheon spokesman Mike Nachshen.
Officials said Washington is an ideal training ground for the balloons because it has a busy air space with lots of commercial airplanes and restricted zones that need constant watch. The Army has already tested the aerostats in New Mexico, showing that they can successfully detect a missile and then be used to shoot it down.
The balloons that make up JLENS work in pairs. One is equipped with radar for monitoring incoming objects — planes, rockets, even enemy watercraft. The other provides so-called fire control radar that locks onto a moving target such as an attacking plane and guides a Patriot missile, for instance, to take it out.
Within defense circles, using the balloons to protect the nation’s capital is hardly a far-fetched idea.
“In general, Washington does not have continuous protection from low-flying cruise missiles,” said Loren Thompson, a defense analyst with the Lexington Institute in Washington, who noted that North Korea and Iran, for example, each have low-flying cruise missiles, and a drone can be turned into a weapon by a capable terrorist organization.
The balloons will be unmanned, but not free-floating. They will be tethered to the ground at Aberdeen with a very long leash, partially made of Kevlar, that will also include its communications and power cable. The skin is a laminated composite material.
They won’t have any engines or method of propulsion. They will be hoisted and retrieved with a winch system.
Within the US government the popularity of balloons and blimps as military and surveillance tools has waxed and waned in recent years. They are in use over Afghanistan, and a similar balloon system to the one going in in Washington is used at the US-Mexico border.
Since 2007, the Pentagon has initiated at least 15 aerostat and airship projects, and many other blimps and lighter-than-air vessels are being tested or in use. However, Pentagon budget planners have been steadily cutting funding for some, including the Raytheon JLENS, which originally was to have 16 ships in circulation.
Armies have been deploying balloons like these for centuries. In the 1700s the French military put scouts inside them to watch for advancing troops, the US used them to spot German submarines during World War I, and England fielded teams of them to help protect London during the Battle of Britain in World War II.
“Today, as in yesterday,” said R.G. Van Treuren, editor of the Noon Balloon, a newsletter of the Naval Airship Association, “the high ground is really where it’s at.”