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Rogue Blimp

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 4/11/2015 Lt. Gen. Clarence E. McKnight Jr.
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The misadventures of a rogue military blimp last month that wiggled free of its tether at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland and came to rest in a remote sector of northeast Pennsylvania came as a surprise to many people who had no idea such things are still playing a key role in national defense. When we think of blimps - which for most people isn't often - it is usually in the context of hovering over a footballs stadium or golf course offering a birds' eye view of the action on the ground.
But blimps play an important role in national defense because of their ability to linger indefinitely at high altitude - much longer than other forms of airborne craft which can only spend relatively short periods of time in the air. The ability to see a long way has always been regarded as a valuable military asset. We had balloons aloft as early as the Civil War on both sides to enable tracking of enemy movements. That role has not diminished in the modern era. Indeed, with the addition of high tech tracking technology, blimps today are more vital than ever before.
Of course, no one in the military calls them blimps - that would be too simple. The one that got away was a JLENS, which is short for Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System. Try saying that fast after a couple of drinks. More simply the blimps are called aerostats - tethered airships that float 10,000 feet in the air. They provide 360 degrees of defensive radar coverage and can detect and track objects like missiles and unmanned aircraft from up to 340 miles away - doubling the reach of ground-based radar. The aerostats are 242 feet long and can stay aloft for 30 days at a time. They do not carry weapons or cameras.
Of course, they are not supposed to come loose and run amok in the sky. They are tethered with something called Vectran that has proven to withstand storms up to 100 knots. If for some reason the tether were to fail, the aerostats were equipped with "a number of procedures and systems in place which are designed to bring the aerostat down in a safe manner."
But of course the tether did fail and the procedures designed to bring the aerostat down in a safe manner did not work. As one with many years of experience in military procurement, I do not find this surprising. The state police had to shoot that blimp -aerostat -- in the old fashioned way to prevent it from rising again and causing more mischief and concern. Fortunately, no one was hurt in this incident though that dragging tether did knock out some power lines.
We can rest assured the surveillance equipment will be aloft again soon, if it isn't already, on new aerostats keeping us safe - with stronger tethers, I hope, and better fail safe mechanisms. At least until the next gust of wind comes along.

Lt. Gen. Clarence E. "Mac" McKnight, Jr., (USA-Ret) is the author of "From Pigeons to Tweets: A General Who Led Dramatic Change in Military Communications", published by The History Publishing Company.

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