In a few days, the U.S. Army will position in the skies over Maryland two billion-dollar blimps capable of monitoring activity in an area the size of Texas.
The launching of the massive, $1.4 billion-per-piece airships will mark the culmination of an 18-year-long project billed as a measure of defense against cruise missiles. As a nifty bonus, the twin sentinels, which will float in place at a height of 10,000 feet, close to an interstate and 45 miles northeast of Washington D.C., will be able to spot and track cars, trucks and boats hundreds of miles away.
Dan Froomkin at The Intercept reports that “[a]rmy officials claim they have no interest in monitoring anything other than missiles, or maybe boats.” But the project, known as JLENS (“Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System) and built by Raytheon, “can detect plenty more than that.” One blimp provides ” omnipresent high-resolution 360-degree radar coverage up to 340 miles in any direction,” while the other “can focus on specific threats and provide targeting information” (whatever that means.)
“Aerostats like JLENS aren’t limited to radar,” Froomkin continues. “If equipped with extremely high-resolution video cameras, they can see and record everything for miles, with extraordinary detail. In Kabul, for example, residents are used to seeing the U.S. military’s tethered aerostat—called the Persistent Ground Surveillance system—hovering above the city, capturing video of daily life below.”
The ACLU’s Jay Stanley is not convinced that the Americans beneath JLENS won’t eventually be subject to the surveillance imposed on the people of Kabul. “I’m sure that the people who are giving us these assurances mean everything they say, but the nature of government programs and government agencies is that things tend to expand and privacy protections tend to shrink,” Stanley told Froomkin. “If we’re going to have massive blimps hovering over civilian areas, or within radar-shot of civilian areas, then we need some very ironclad checks and balances that will provide confidence that there’s no domestic surveillance going on.”
Ed Herlik, a former Air Force officer and technology analyst with an enthusiasm for airships, confirmed that blimps are “wonderful for staring at things.” The psychological effect of a massive, unmoving blimp is a boon to officials seeking to pacify agitated citizens, Froomkin says. “If you put a camera in a sky over an area where you expect a lot of unrest, the area will calm down,” Herlik added.
Cryptic language found in Raytheon’s contract by a researcher with the advocacy group Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) does not ease anxiety over the potential abuse of JLENS. After it becomes active, the contract said, the project will be evaluated based on its “potential to grow to accommodate new and/or alternative missions.”
Again, the Army insists there will be no cameras on JLENS. But in a test last year, Froomkin reports, “Raytheon equipped one of the blimps with an MTS-B Multi-Spectral Targeting System that provides both day and night imaging, laser designation, and laser illumination capabilities.” The result of that test was that JLENS operators could “watch live feed of trucks, trains and cars from dozens of miles away.” They also spied Raytheon employees “simulate planting a roadside improvised explosive device.”
Returning to the program’s impact on the majority of the population, Ginger McCall, associate director of EPIC, commented, “There’s something inherently suspect for the public to look up in the sky and see this surveillance device hanging there. … It’s the definition of persistent surveillance.”