Despite runaway blimp, lawmakers stand behind troubled missile defense system

The Pentagon's glitch-prone, $2.7-billion system of radar-equipped blimps — designed to safeguard the nation's capital against cruise missiles and other airborne threats — has long been a source of frustration to military leaders. A month ago, it became a punch line.

One of the pilotless JLENS blimps broke loose from its mooring in Maryland on Oct. 28 and flew for 150 miles, disrupting civil aviation and damaging power lines with its mooring cable before coming to rest in rural Pennsylvania.

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Fugitive Edward Snowden, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and others lampooned the troubled JLENS system on Twitter. At a Republican presidential debate the same night, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee ridiculed the runaway blimp on national TV as "basically a bag of gas that cut loose, destroyed everything in its path, left thousands of people powerless."

"But they couldn't get rid of it," Huckabee said, "because we had too much money invested in it."

Huckabee's gibe reflected a stubborn truth: the difficulty of killing even deeply flawed defense systems once they have acquired constituencies in Congress and the military.

Congress faces a Dec. 11 deadline to cut $5 billion from President Obama's proposed military budget, and some programs are at risk. But lawmakers from both parties are standing behind JLENS, despite its well-documented deficiencies.

The Los Angeles Times sought comment on the fate of JLENS from all 35 members of the defense appropriations subcommittees in the House and Senate.

None voiced opposition to continued funding. Several key lawmakers said through aides that they would not decide the system's fate until the Army has completed its investigation into the cause of the unmooring. Since the inquiry is expected to last months, a decision to await its conclusion is a decision to keep taxpayer money flowing to the program.

JLENS — short for Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System — was intended to protect U.S. troops in combat and American cities and towns by providing early detection of low-flying threats.

The system, developed by Raytheon Co., has been dogged by delays and technical problems since the Army awarded the first contract in 1998. In tests, the blimp-borne radar has struggled to track flying objects and to distinguish friendly aircraft from threatening ones.

A 2012 report by the Pentagon's Operational Test and Evaluation Office faulted the system in four "critical performance areas" and rated its reliability as "poor." In its most recent assessment, in 2013, the agency again cited serious deficiencies and said JLENS had "low system reliability."

For some, JLENS' continued survival defies understanding. In a Nov. 19 essay posted on the website of the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight, former Marine officer Dan Grazier wrote, "It is unclear what, if anything, can actually kill this program."

Obama's proposed defense budget includes money to preserve JLENS' last lifeline: a three-year trial run, or "operational exercise," in the skies above Washington. The exercise began in December and is expected to cost an estimated $50 million a year.

Two top Republicans, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi, declined through spokesmen to comment on JLENS funding. Cochran is chairman of both the Senate Appropriations Committee and its defense subcommittee.

A senior Democrat on the same two panels, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland, has been one of JLENS' most influential supporters. The operational exercise is based in her state, at the Army's Aberdeen Proving Ground. Maryland is also home to TCOM LP, which makes the blimps and related ground equipment as a subcontractor for Raytheon.

The day after the runaway blimp cut its path through Maryland and rural Pennsylvania, Mikulski sent Defense Secretary Ashton Carter a letter saying she was "deeply concerned" about the episode. She asked military leaders to "determine whether operational testing for JLENS should continue."

Yet for now Mikulski favors continued funding, according to those familiar with her thinking.

Another Maryland Democrat, Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, serves on the House defense appropriations subcommittee, and his district includes Aberdeen Proving Ground.

When the Army decided to base the operational exercise at Aberdeen, Ruppersberger put out a news release saying the trial run "will generate about 140 jobs" for the area and "have a domino effect on our local economy."

"The JLENS workers will be buying homes, shopping in our grocery stores and eating in our restaurants," the statement said.

Asked where Ruppersberger stands now on JLENS, aide Jamie Lennon said by email: "We think we need to allow the Pentagon to complete its investigation into the unmooring before any decisions are made regarding the program's future."

As for the economic benefits of JLENS, Lennon called the effect on Ruppersberger's district "minimal," adding: "While we do whatever we can to help create and support jobs in the district, citizen safety comes first."

Two Californians are among the defense appropriators — Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat, and Rep. Ken Calvert, a Republican from Corona, in Riverside County.

Feinstein did not respond to requests for comment on JLENS. Through a spokesman, Calvert declined to comment.

Another Californian, Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough), has said JLENS "should be the first thing to go" in cutting defense spending. But she does not serve on an appropriations panel.

JLENS has supported hundreds of blue- and white-collar jobs in Southern California, Massachusetts, Maryland, North Carolina, Texas and other states — helping to ensure a wide base of congressional support.

Raytheon, the program's prime contractor, is a reliable source of campaign money. The company is one of the world's largest defense contractors and reported net sales of nearly $23 billion last year.

From 1999 through September of this year, its political action committee and employees donated a total of $1.6 million to the campaigns of Congress members now serving on the defense appropriations subcommittees in the House and Senate, federal records show.

Among those 35 members, the top recipient of Raytheon money, with $107,000 in total donations, was Sen. Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat. In addition to his subcommittee seat, he is the ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Reed's spokesman, Chip Unruh, said that the senator is not swayed by donations and that he "votes on the facts and what he believes is best for his constituents."

Regarding Reed's position on JLENS funding, Unruh said, "We're waiting for the investigation to be completed before making a decision."

The top recipient of Raytheon-affiliated campaign funds among House appropriators was Ruppersberger. He has collected $91,250 since he was first elected to Congress in 2002, according to federal campaign finance data posted by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

Ruppersberger's spokeswoman said that "political contributions have no bearing now or ever on the congressman's policy decisions."

A Raytheon spokeswoman said the company would have no comment until the Army had completed its investigation. Yet Raytheon wasted no time in trying to shore up support for the program when the blimp broke free last month.

A Capitol Hill aide, speaking on condition of anonymity, described receiving a call from a Raytheon lobbyist on Oct. 28, while the blimp was still on the loose, asserting that the mishap was not Raytheon's fault.

The 242-foot-long JLENS blimps are designed to operate in pairs, at altitudes up to 10,000 feet. One blimp's radar would search widely for threats. The other's would focus narrowly on airborne objects and transmit "fire control" data on their location, speed and trajectory. U.S. fighter jets or ground-based rockets would use the data to intercept or destroy an intruder deemed threatening.

After years of frustration with JLENS, top Army brass tried to kill the program in late 2010. By then, the Pentagon had spent more than $2 billion and did not have an operational system to show for it.

As The Times revealed in an investigation published in September, advocates for JLENS, notably Marine Corps Gen. James E. "Hoss" Cartwright, then vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, saved the program in 2011 by arranging for the operational exercise — promoted as a way to help protect the nation's capital.

Cartwright retired the same year — and joined Raytheon's board of directors five months later. From 2012 through 2014, Raytheon paid him more than $828,000 in cash and stock for serving as a director, Securities and Exchange Commission records show.

Last spring, JLENS suffered a major embarrassment when a postal worker flew a small rotary-wing aircraft through Washington's highly restricted airspace as a political protest, landing on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol.

The single-seat craft was just the kind of tree-skimming intruder JLENS was designed to detect. Yet the system was not working; software problems with the "fire control" radar had grounded one of the blimps.

It was against that backdrop that a JLENS blimp broke loose Oct. 28, dragging its 6,700-foot Kevlar mooring cable behind it. The cable knocked out electricity to 35,000 Pennsylvania residents. F-16 fighter-jets were scrambled to track the blimp.

It came to rest in high trees in Moreland Township, Pa. The next day, at the military's request, six state troopers with shotguns unleashed "a barrage" at the tattered blimp to drain its remaining helium, said State Police Capt. David Young.

"No one had ever seen anything like this," said Frederick Hunsinger, public safety director for Columbia County, Pa., recalling the hundreds of phone calls his department fielded after the renegade blimp appeared in the sky. "It just kind of descended on us."

david.willman@latimes.com

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A version of this article appeared in print on November 30, 2015, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Kept afloat by key backers Despite a runaway blimp and other flaws, U.S. is unlikely to kill $2.7-billion missile defense system." — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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