Troubled Army blimp program faces deep funding cut

The Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee wants to slash nearly all spending for the Pentagon’s troubled $2.7-billion program to use radar-carrying blimps to search for enemy missiles approaching the East Coast.

Budget-related documents made public Friday show that Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) wants to authorize only $2.5 million next year, or 6% of the $45.5 million sought by President Obama to sustain the program, called JLENS.

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If the deep cuts are kept, the program would not have the money Pentagon officials say is necessary for the blimps to resume their mission over Washington and surrounding areas from a base at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md.

In March, Senate Republican and Democratic leaders refused a request by Defense Secretary Ashton Carter to shift $27.2 million to JLENS from another defense program.

Senate leaders also signaled they were unlikely to approve the president's request for $45.5 million for JLENS in the next fiscal year.

Congressional support for the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System has collapsed since a high-profile mishap Oct. 28.  

One of the pilotless, 242-foot-long blimps broke loose from a ground mooring and soared north for several hours into Pennsylvania before it came down. The runaway blimp disrupted air traffic, clipped utility lines with its mile-long tether and forced authorities to scramble fighter jets to track it.

The spectacle was covered live on national television and became fodder for ridicule on Twitter from figures as disparate as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz), who heads the Senate Armed Services Committee, and fugitive Edward Snowden.

The Army’s "operational exercise"’ with JLENS at Aberdeen was suspended indefinitely after the incident.

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Thornberry’s request for $2.5 million marks a turnabout for the chairman, who supported JLENS as recently as last November.

Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough), a member of the armed services committee, praised Thornberry’s shift while reiterating her opposition to the program.

"Let’s hope it stays dead," Speier said in a statement. She urged Congress to put "this money to use protecting our nation, rather than sending it to float away on a path of destruction from Maryland to Pennsylvania.’’

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