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Friday, August 9, 2013

U.S. Military Revives Blimp Technology

The U.S. military is looking to 18th century technology to meet 21st century threats.

Starting next year, people in the Maryland area will see two giant blimps the size of football fields tethered to the ground. They’re called aerostats.

“They do not carry people — the operators, the soldiers, are on the ground operating the system,” project manager Doug Burgess of defense contractor Raytheon told Here & Now. “The two aerostats do stay aloft for long periods of time and carry very sophisticated radars developed by Raytheon.”

The aerostats have a visibility range about the size of Texas, according to Burgess.

In the 1700s, the French military put scouts in balloons to watch for advancing troops. These aerostats will be looking for missiles.

But people are wondering what else they’ll be watching.


  • Doug Burgess, JLENS program director at Raytheon, the company that developed aerostats.




The U.S. military is looking to an 18th century technology to meet 21st century threats. Starting next year, people will see two giant blimps the size of a football field each tethered to the ground but floating 10,000 feet above, 70 miles north of D.C. They're called aerostats. Now, while in the 1700s, the French military put scouts in balloons to watch for advancing troops, these new aerostats will be scanning for threats like missiles.

Of course, some people are wondering what else they'll be watching. But how do they work? Raytheon developed the aerostats. Doug Burgess is program director, and he joins us on the line. And, Doug, we're looking at pictures. Now, unfortunately, what comes to mind is the Hindenburg, which, of course, blew up. But how would you describe them?


DOUG BURGESS: The way I describe them is they are a blimp technology certainly have come well along - advanced since the 1800s in terms of materials and in using helium, so they're not similar to the Hindenburg in that regard. But they are able to stay aloft for long periods of time, up to 30 days. They do not carry people. The operators, the soldiers, are on the ground operating the system. But the two aerostats do stay aloft for long periods of time and carry very sophisticated radars developed by Raytheon. Why there's two radars? One radar can see very large distances, 340 miles each way. So it's about the size of an area about the size of Texas.

YOUNG: Yeah, that they can see. Well, we have some questions, but just more about how it works and how it looks. It looks like a giant flying fish. Now, we understand it'll be tethered to the ground. I'm assuming that's not with, you know, a kite string. What's the tether?

BURGESS: No, it is not. Right. So the tether is a - it's made of Kevlar. It's about an inch in diameter, very, very strong. It's anchored to the ground by a large - looks - almost looks like a crane. And it's a station that's able to turn as the wind blows. So that one-inch Kevlar tether is very important.

YOUNG: Well, we're reading in a report in The Boston Globe that - and it was surprising to us to read that Washington doesn't have continuous protection from these low-flying cruise missiles that these balloons will be looking for. They have airplanes that go aloft with radar-detecting system, but it's not 24/7. And also, even though these are very expensive, $2 billion to develop the concept, and two aerostats cost about $450 million. That's a fraction of the cost of using radar planes to circle Washington nonstop. So this is where some of the support for these balloons comes.

But I'm sure you heard the question about, what else will they be looking for? You know, as you've said, right now, they're looking for anything incoming above the capital. But can they - are they also equipped to look down and watch residents?

BURGESS: What the radar can do very well is see how far things are away and how fast they're going, but it can't tell the individual characteristics of these objects.

YOUNG: But could that change? Could they be retrofitted to have different kinds of cameras that could then float over and watch residents?

BURGESS: So we were contracted from the Army to build this system according to their requirements, and their requirements were spelled out for cruise missiles and airplanes and swarming boats and those kind of things. And that's what the system is designed for.

YOUNG: Right. Right now. Well, tell us more about how it works because we understand the two balloons work in pairs. What does each do?

BURGESS: So one balloon has what's called a surveillance radar on it. So if you think of yourself standing on the ground with a pair of binoculars and looking out, you can only see, you know, three to four miles because of the horizon. But as you go up - and if you think about if you go up into, say, the Washington Monument and you're up, you know, a few hundred feet, all of a sudden you can see for many miles. And so if you think about the balloon taking you up to 10,000 feet, the horizon now becomes not a limiting factor and you can see for hundreds of miles. And so that's really the benefit of this whole technology, is to take you up much farther - up higher so that you can see much farther.

And for the benefit for the soldier of that seeing much farther is for decision time. You get to pick something up a lot farther away. Now you have time to make and consider the options, and make a decision in terms of wanting to either engage the object with a different missile system or even just the matter of flying some other airplanes out to go and intercept it to see what's coming in.

YOUNG: So one of the balloons notes the incoming object, the other has this fire control radar that can lock on to that target and send information to another system to either intercept it or, if need be, take it out.

BURGESS: Yeah. If you think about the challenge of sometimes referred to as hitting a bullet with a bullet, right? So a missile's coming in and you want to hit it with another missile. You need to know very precisely where that object is, how fast it's going and where is it going to be in the future time. And so the second radar, that fire control radar, provides that what we call fire control quality data to whatever system might be used to engage.

YOUNG: Well, as you said, there's some questions about it. You know, people wonder about having balloons - they'll sort of look like they're above baseball games, but they're actually looking for incoming missiles and planes. But I'm gathering that - especially post-9/11, when an airplane was headed for the capital and one did strike the Pentagon, you feel pretty good about the success of this.

BURGESS: We feel very good about the success of this. I think we've had a number of successful events that we've been challenged by the Army to perform to, and we've hit all those marks.

YOUNG: By the way, we understand it will be raised and lowered with a winch, kind of this winch system that will pull it in and reel it out. Any concerns about it getting lose or exploding and showering equipment down on people? It just seems like - it's such an odd-looking thing.

BURGESS: There is no concerns. We've done a number of tests through the development program with these aerostats where they've poked holes in it, they've shot at it. And because of the differential pressure between the inside of the aerostat and the outside air is so small, that it's not like it's a kid's balloon that you pop and the air comes rushing out. I mean the helium just eventually comes out, but the aerostat will just slowly come down.

YOUNG: Doug Burgess, Raytheon program director for the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System, a long way of saying JLENS, or even shorter, the two giant blimps that will soon be aloft over the Maryland area. Doug, thanks for speaking to us about it.

BURGESS: Thank you, Robin.

YOUNG: So your thoughts. Is this just a bigger surveillance drone, something also being used, the world we live in? Are you glad it will be there to protect the capital? Worried that it will be misused? Let us know. There are many different ways to do that. You can go to hereandnow.org. Leave a comment with a story or click on contact us to send an email. You can also follow us on Twitter @hereandnow, @hereandnowrobin.


And @jeremyhobson. You can join us on Facebook. Go to facebook.com/hereandnowradio. And if you click the like button, we will keep you in the loop about upcoming guests and stories. Coming up, should Chekhov be required reading for President Obama's Russian policy advisers? That story is next. HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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  • JT Gould

    As long as it is used to protect us and not spy on its citizens, then I think it is a very good thing!

  • R.Luther

    Unless I missed a question 7 answer, during this story; I have a question. How will civil aviators be protected from flying into the kevlar tethers? At 10k ft, the blimps are well above the altitudes commonly flown by general aviation pilots.

    • Guest

      They’re stationed at Aberdeen Proving Ground, an Army facility that civil aviators shouldn’t be flying over anyways. And if they do, then maybe JLENS will detect them, and they’ll be intercepted.

      • Hybrid Airship

        Off course private pilots have hit aerostat cables with fatal consequences before and it’s difficult to intercept them in time as the closed airspace is too small.

  • David Goessling

    This report was almost offensive in it’s ignorance and repetition of silly tropes about lighter-than-air and other defense technologies.

    Did you do any research at all before speaking to Mr. Burgess? He was obviously hard-pressed to remain polite in the face of Robin Young’s inane questions.

    re: “!8th century technology”? Please – balloons and blimps were used all through WWI and WWII as effective submarine hunters, barrage balloons, observation platforms, etc. etc. Are you completely unaware of the aerostats that have been in place as drug smuggling surveillance tools in the Southwest for years. NASA, NOAA and other scientific organizations use ballons all the time and have done sine the 1940s. Blimps and various hot-air craft are everywhere. This just betrays your own ignorance.

    re: the Hindenburg – really? You are bringing this up? No lighter than air craft has been filed with hydrogen for over 75 years. Everyone knows this and has seen all the explanations on Mythbusters, etc. This is a provocative, stupid question worthy of Fox News. It seems that any story about any sort of lighter-than-air craft is required to beat this long-dead horse. Why? It only perpetuates a stereotype and hampers acceptance of a set of effective and pretty green technologies. So, just stop, OK?

    re: surveillance fears – the man said nothing about cameras. Why inject this falsehood into the discussion when you know it is untrue? Again, Fox News-ish in its level of useless provocation.

    re: “a winch”, “a string”, “will it explode”…. etc. When was the last time there was an accident of any sort with a lighter-than-air craft? The only one since 1963 was in 2000.

    All of this is the worst luddite stupidity. Who do you think is listening to this program? Give your audience more credit – there are engineers, programmers, designers, etc.

    All in all, very disappointing and not up to a standard of intelligence that I expect from public radio.

    I have to say, this program and “NPR Science Friday” often sink to a very low level and your reporters need to wake up and educate themselves to the level of technological knowledge and awareness of much of their audience.

    BTW, I am not “in the industry” nor do I have any specific interest in lighter-than-air – I just know about things in the world…

    Dave Goessling
    High Bridge, NJ

  • Sunning Turtle

    Like David Goessling commented, aerostats have been in place as drug smuggling surveillance since the late ’60s, early ’70s. Affectionately named Hughie and Baby Hughie by us Floridians, they were tethered in the Florida Keys (Marathon, if I remember correctly).

  • Guest

    Well said, David. Frankly, the “progressives” sound downright regressive when it comes to technology like drones, genetic engineering, nuclear energy, and even modern medicine.

  • Guest

    The U.S. military is looking to a 30th-century B.C. technology to meet 21st-century threats. It’s called ships. Now, while in the 3000s B.C., Egyptian ships sailed the Red Sea, these new ships will be scanning for threats like missiles. Of course, some people are wondering what else they’ll be watching. But how do they work? We’re looking at pictures. Now, unfortunately, what comes to mind is the Titanic, which, of course, sank…

  • Hybrid Airship

    The US should use real blimps where there is a risk of an aircraft flying into the aerostats winch cable. For more info on the real McCoy blimps Google Skyships Services Inc or follow the link to my own web site from Gasbags lighter than air comedy web site.

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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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