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Don’t Be Alarmed By the Drone Blimps Hovering Over D.C.

If America is attacked, we might be saved by blimps. No, not state-of-the-art jet fighters that can fly well beyond the speed of sound. But blimps: lumbering, relatively jovial blimps—the manatees of aviation.

Within a year, a pair of souped-up $2.7 billion blimps (price includes R&D) will be floated 10,000 feet above the District of Columbia and act as a 340-mile-wide eye in the sky, detecting incoming missiles and the like.

The design and testing phase for JLENS—the (deep breath) Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System, produced by Raytheon, a major weapons manufactuer—is over, relays Program Director Doug Burgess to Popular Mechanics. Now, it is time for implementation. Or, as he puts it, "[We're] getting away from the Ph.D. engineer types running the system to the 20- or 25-year-old soldier running the system."

The idea to employ blimps to protect a city is actually not new. During World War II, London deployed a similar system to protect against Nazi air strikes. The barrage balloons, as they were called, acted as fence posts for a spool of wire that would make it difficult for planes to maneuver in the city. Basically, they were barbed wire fences suspended a few thousand feet in the air. They were also filled with hydrogen, which upon impact with a plane would explode. 

The balloons that will fly over D.C. will perform a similar function, and look remarkably similar—but swap the wire cabling for state-of-the-art radar and computer processors. And these won't be keeping out Nazi propeller planes; they'll detect more-modern threats, such as cruise missiles. According to Raytheon, the units will protect a city at 500-700 percent less than the cost to operate the reconnaissance planes necessary to maintain the same amount of coverage. They will provide a comforting amount of "minutes," rather than the current "seconds" of time for U.S. forces to decide what to do with the threat of an antiship cruise missile.

The blimps, or aerostats as they are technically called, are 77 yards long, and have a range of 340 miles. They fly at 10,000 feet for 30 days at time. According to an unclassified report by the Defense Department, they've performed well in testing. "The JLENS radars successfully tracked fighter aircraft, towed targets, and cruise-missile targets, meeting accuracy requirements within margin," the report states. A test on the Great Salt Lake, reports Popular Mechanics, revealed that the JLENS can detect a swarm of boats from 100 miles away. The aircraft could potentially carry weapons, and have fire-control radar, which means they can send information that a ballistic system can interpret to aim a shot.

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