In Washington, it’s not uncommon to see Marine One, the presidential helicopter, commuting from the White House to various points around town. In fact, there are all kinds of machines in the skies above the Beltway — from air force jets and weather balloons to news choppers and passenger planes servicing one of three regional airports. But, even locals may be surprised next year when they look up and see two enormous white blimps hovering above the nation’s capital.

Called aerostats — the technical term for a blimp — the Pentagon has plans to deploy the giant airships over the Baltimore and Washington, DC area in 2014 in order to patrol the skies more effectively than ground-based radar systems and more inexpensively than manned surveillance planes.

A pair of Raytheon JLENS (Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor) aerostats will be positioned at 10,000 feet with the mission of spotting and tracking incoming airborne and surface threats such as cruise missiles, high-speed attack boats, armed drones, planes, tanks, and trucks. At 238-feet across each, the aerostats provide 360-degree radar surveillance capability and can stay aloft for 30 days at a time.

The underbelly of a JLENS aerostat. The 74 meter-wide airships will act as a 360 degree eye-in-the-sky. (Photo credit: Courtesy Raytheon)

The underbelly of a JLENS aerostat. The 74 meter-wide airships will act as a 360 degree eye-in-the-sky. (Photo credit: Courtesy Raytheon)

Significantly, during a time of fiscal austerity in Washington, they’re also much cheaper than traditional planes.

“One system provides the war-fighter the same around-the-clock coverage that it would normally take four or five fixed-wing surveillance aircraft to provide,” said David Gulla, a senior vice president at Raytheon.

James Colbert, a defense expert at the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA), says, “If you want 24/7/365 aerial coverage, keeping planes aloft is fabulously expensive. Fixed wing planes require fuel, maintenance, pilots, and ground crews – aerostats are persistent and low cost. They just sit up there as long as they have helium.”

Beyond the affordable price tag, Colbert has high praise for what aerostats can do for defense.

“By putting radar so high in the air, it gives you an enormous field of coverage,” he says. “For a long time, this system has been heavily touted and asked for by US commanders in the field for the Persian Gulf area because you can deploy them in places like Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain, and have persistent surveillance across the region, probably well into Iran based on the range on which those radars can surveil.”

‘One system provides the war-fighter the same around-the-clock coverage that it would normally take four or five fixed-wing surveillance aircraft to provide’

Not surprisingly, Israel, with vital surveillance needs, has been involved in the research and development of aerostats for years. Two companies, RAFAEL and Elta, a subsidiary of Israel Aircraft Industries, are producing and marketing home-grown aerostat systems. Israel has also delivered aerostats to India for deployment along its sensitive northeastern border with Pakistan, which also uses aerostats for surveillance.

The Israeli defense company, RAFAEL, makes the STRATUS aerostat system. (Photo credit: Courtesy RAFAEL Advanced Defense Systems, Ltd.)

The Israeli defense company, RAFAEL, makes the STRATUS aerostat system. (Photo credit: Courtesy RAFAEL Advanced Defense Systems, Ltd.)

“The Israelis have been involved with aerostats for several decades because they have their own needs for persistent aerial coverage into Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, and Jordan,” says Colbert. “Israel also uses tactical aerostats to suspend camera systems. These things are highly stable, highly advanced and stable in almost all weather conditions. They’re built better, last longer, and if you know you need coverage from a fixed point, it seems wasteful to keep sending airplanes to rotate above that airspace when you can simply suspend the radar systems from an aerostat.”

Colbert says Israel is keen on integrating aerostat technology into its air defense system.

‘The Israelis have been involved with aerostats for several decades’

“Iron Dome, for example, is ground-based radar looking up and out. JLENS technology is radar that’s already up, so it would be looking farther out. It can potentially pick up the threats being launched from the ground whereas Iron Dome is picking them up once they’ve reached a certain altitude.”

Back in Washington, defense officials say the goal of stationing the blimps on the East Coast is to test their ability to track threats from the land, air, and sea in military situations.

Could aerostats make Iron Dome more effective? (Photo credit: Courtesy Raytheon)

Could aerostats make Iron Dome more effective? (Photo credit: Courtesy Raytheon)

“You have boats, planes, all kinds of traffic there — it should be a good test of the blimps,” said Raytheon’s Douglas Burgess. He said the JLENS system should be able to see from New York all the way down to southern Virginia.

John Pikeof, a defense analyst with GlobalSecurity.org, calls himself “a big fan of tethered aerostats” and says they’ve been used for some time on the Mexican border, in the Caribbean, and in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Indeed, the use of blimps to protect a city has historical precedent. During World War II, London used blimps – called barrage balloons – to protect against Nazi airstrikes.

In London, barrage balloons essentially acted as barbed wire fences against Nazi propeller planes. (Photo credit: Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

In London, barrage balloons essentially acted as barbed wire fences against Nazi propeller planes. (Photo credit: Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

“In the age of propeller planes, you put these big aerostats up, tethered to cables,” said Colbert. “Planes can’t fly through the cables, so they’d have to fly higher, making it harder to bomb and strafe the city below.”

“The barrages functioned as fences and, when filled with hydrogen, any plane that hit them would explode on impact. They weren’t particularly effective during the war, but their primary purpose was to give the public on the ground confidence. As for these modern aerostats, they’re a completely different system,” he said.

But will the modern system create the same kind of confidence? At a time when the US is in the midst of a national debate about privacy in light of revelations about the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs, is it wise to deploy two huge flying fortresses above one of the most populated parts of the country?

Stressing that the blimps are equipped only to detect military threats, Raytheon’s Burgess said citizens shouldn’t worry:

“Radars can only read license plates in Will Smith movies.”