They will look like two giant white blimps floating high above Interstate 95 in Maryland, perhaps en route to a football game somewhere along the Eastern Seaboard. But their mission will have nothing to do with sports and everything to do with war.
The aerostats – that is the term for lighter-than-air craft that are tethered to the ground – are to be set aloft at Aberdeen Proving Ground, on Army-owned land about 45 miles northeast of Washington, for a three-year test slated to start in October. From a vantage of 10,000 feet, they will cast a vast radar net from Raleigh to Boston and out to Lake Erie, with the goal of detecting cruise missiles or enemy aircraft so they could be intercepted before reaching the capital.
Aerostats deployed by the military at U.S. bases in Iraq and Afghanistan typically carried powerful surveillance cameras as well, to track the movements of suspected insurgents and even U.S. soldiers.
When Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales murdered 16 civilians in Kandahar in March 2012, an aerostat above his base captured video of him returning from the slaughter in the early-morning darkness with a rifle in his hand and a shawl over his shoulders.
Defense contractor Raytheon last year touted an exercise in which it outfitted the aerostats planned for deployment at Aberdeen with one of the company’s most powerful high-altitude surveillance systems, capable of spotting individual people and vehicles from a distance of many miles.
The Army said it has “no current plans” to mount such cameras or infrared sensors on the aerostats or to share information with federal, state or local law enforcement, but it declined to rule out either possibility. The radar system that is planned for the aerostats will be capable of monitoring the movement of trains, boats and cars, the Army said.
The prospect of military-grade tracking technology floating above suburban Baltimore – along one of the East Coast’s busiest travel corridors – has sparked privacy concerns at a time of rising worry about the growth of government eavesdropping in the dozen years since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
“That’s the kind of massive persistent surveillance we’ve always been concerned about with drones,” said Jay Stanley, a privacy expert for the American Civil Liberties Union. “It’s part of this trend we’ve seen since 9/11, which is the turning inward of all of these surveillance technologies.”
The Army played down such concerns in written responses to questions posed by The Washington Post, saying its goal is to test the ability of the aerostats to bolster the region’s missile-defense capability, especially against low-flying cruise missiles that can be hard for ground-based systems to detect in time to intercept them.
The Army determined it did not need to conduct a Privacy Impact Assessment, required for some government programs, because it was not going to collect any personally identifiable information, officials said in their written responses to The Washington Post.
“The primary mission … is to track airborne objects,” the Army said. “Its secondary mission is to track surface moving objects such as vehicles or boats. The capability to track surface objects does not extend to individual people.”
Even the most powerful overhead surveillance systems, experts say, struggle to make out individual faces or other identifying features such as license plates because of the extreme angles when viewing an area from above.
But privacy advocates say location information can easily lead to the identification of individuals if collected on a mass scale and analyzed over time.
Researchers have found that people vary their movements little day to day, typically traveling from home to work and back while also regularly visiting a small number of other locations, such as stores, gyms or the homes of friends.
The aerostats planned for Aberdeen will have radar capable of detecting airborne objects from up to 340 miles away and vehicles on the surface from up to 140 miles away – as far south as Richmond, Va., as far west as Cumberland, Va., and as far north as Staten Island, N.Y. The Army declined to say what size vehicles can be sensed from those distances.
“If it’s able to track vehicles, that is problematic,” said Jennifer Lynch of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties group. “You could imagine a scenario in which the location information can reveal where you go to church, what doctor you’re going to, whether you’re cheating on your wife, all those types of details. … Once a surveillance technology is put up, it’s very tempting for law enforcement or the military to use it for reasons they did not originally disclose.”
Technologies developed for battlefields – weapons, vehicles, communications systems – long have flowed homeward as overseas conflicts have ended.
The battles that followed the Sept. 11 attacks have produced major advances in surveillance equipment whose manufacturers increasingly are looking to expand their use within the United States.
Aerostats – basically big balloons on strings – grew popular in Iraq and Afghanistan and also are used by Israel to monitor the Gaza Strip and by the United States to eye movement along southern border areas. Even a rifle shot through an aerostat will not bring it down, because the pressure of the helium inside nearly matches the pressure of the air outside, preventing rapid deflation.
The Defense Department spent nearly $7 billion on 15 lighter-than-air systems between 2007 and 2012, with several suffering from technical problems, delays and unexpectedly high costs, the Government Accountability Office found in an October 2012 report.
The system planned for Aberdeen is called JLENS, short for Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System. The system has had setbacks, including rising costs and an accident in 2010 that damaged one of the aerostats at a facility in North Carolina.
A GAO report in March put the total development costs for JLENS at $2.7 billion. Once expected to provide 16 systems, each consisting of two aerostats and accompanying ground controls, only two of these systems have been built, the one scheduled to fly at Aberdeen and a second sitting in storage in Utah.
Raytheon, the prime contractor on the project, declined numerous interview requests about the JLENS system and, after requesting questions in writing, also declined to answer those.
The military has no concrete plans to build more JLENS systems, though supporters of the program have not given up hope of reviving support.
“They are bringing this to the East Coast, close to Washington, to get the Pentagon guys and Congress to say, ‘Whoa, we could really use this,’ ” said Daniel Goure of the Lexington Institute, a military think tank with ties to the defense industry. “This is re-purposing. You’ve already spent the money.”
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