The US Army is set to launch the first of two joint land-attack cruise missile defence elevated netted sensor (JLENS) tethered aerostats at Graces Quarters, Aberdeen Proving Ground (APG), Maryland, next week for a three-year evaluation period.
Equipped with a radar system that can detect cruise missiles threats in an area ranging from upstate New York to south of Norfolk, Virginia, US, the 250ft blimp-like aerostat will be tethered to the ground at all times and float at an elevation of approximately 10,000ft.
The evaluation period aims to demonstrate that the aerostat can be successfully integrated into existing North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) systems, which are designed to protect airspace over the East Coast of the US, covering New York City, Baltimore, and Washington.
263rd Army Air Defense Command lieutenant colonel William Pitts said: "We've already answered the question, 'Is it effective against cruise missiles?'"
"There are plenty of tests that show we can see those things.
"Now the question is, when I put it here in the homeland and plug it into all the NORAD command-and-control systems, how does it integrate and how does it enable the other systems to do their job better? All those command and control nodes can leverage the data off the aerostat to provide some of that early awareness."
A second JLENS aerostat is scheduled to be launched at APG's nearby Edgewood Section in 2015.
If a cruise missile were to enter the area observed by the two aerostats, the information collected by them would be fed into existing NORAD Eastern Air Defence Sectors systems to eventually destroy the missile using aircraft launched munitions, ground-based air defence systems or aegis combat systems.
The aerostats can produce a more comprehensive picture of the area they are meant to protect than current ground-based radar systems, which have limited ability to detect threats and stay aloft for 30 days at a time, coming down only for maintenance or because of severe weather.
Aerostat's operations will be run by 100 soldiers from Alpha Company, 3rd Air Defense Artillery, which is part of the 108th Air Defense Artillery Brigade. A total of eight soldiers will be responsible for the actual operations of the aerostat, with another crew operating the radar system.
Image: The US Army plans to launch the first JLENS aerostat next week at Graces Quarters, Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland, US. Photo: courtesy of C. Todd Lopez.