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FY-12 budget request adds $168 million

Army JLENS Destroyed in Major Blimp Collision; Program Held Up

Posted: April 8, 2011

The Army lost a Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor aerostat in an accident last September after an airship moored nearby broke loose and crashed into it, the service told Inside the Army.

The collision happened last fall at the Elizabeth City, NC, manufacturing and test facility of TCOM, L.P., headquartered in Columbia, MD, according to Army spokesman Dan O'Boyle. A Skyship 600 airship -- unrelated to the JLENS program -- "broke free from its mooring tower and collided with a JLENS aerostat," destroying both vehicles, O'Boyle said.

"Initial indications are that severe weather caused the accident," the spokesman wrote in an April 8 e-mail to ITA.

The JLENS mooring station suffered "minor damage" and has since been repaired, O'Boyle wrote. A replacement aerostat is still being manufactured, with training and testing on hold until then. The cost of the accident has yet to be determined pending an investigation by the Defense Contracts Management Agency, according to O'Boyle.

Neither the Army nor JLENS maker Raytheon previously disclosed the accident. A telephone message left with TCOM requesting information about the owner of the Skyship 600 was not returned by press time (April 8).

The accident has led program officials to extend the engineering and manufacturing development phase of the JLENS program, a fact that is noted but left unexplained in Army budget documents released earlier this year. The extension will cost an additional $168 million on top of $176 million originally planned for fiscal year 2012, according to the budget documents.

Army officials consider JLENS a key component of the service's surveillance sensor network for tracking enemy unmanned aerial vehicles and cruise missiles. The 74-meter tethered aerostat also has a role in ground surveillance. Its sensors can track moving targets and provide a "launch point estimate" for tactical ballistic missiles and large-caliber rockets, according to the budget documents.

A JLENS system can stay in the air up to 30 days and provide 24-hour radar coverage of an assigned area. It uses "advanced sensor and networking technologies to provide 360-degree, wide-area surveillance and precision target tracking," according to the budget documents.

The Government Accountability Office disclosed in a March 29 report on select Defense Department weapon systems that the Army had lost a JLENS aerostat in an accident last September, but the report provided no details.

Besides the accident, auditors outlined several factors that could affect the Army's plan to field an initial operational capability by the end of FY-13. The schedule likely would slip if "problems" occur during systems integration and verification tests and if test site preparations are incomplete by this month, the GAO report states.

"Finally, the program could also be affected by alignment with the Army's Integrated Air and Missile Defense program," the report states. "As part of the integrated strategy, the Army extended the system development and demonstration phase by 12 months," it notes.

On Oct. 1, 2010, the online aviation news service Avweb reported a Skyship 600 colliding with what the article described only as an unmanned aerostat. The Skyship pilot was seriously injured, Avweb reported. -- Sebastian Sprenger

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