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US Army has to shoot down its own $235 million blimp after it escapes

Aberdeen blimp

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(NaturalNews) It certainly turned out not to be the most efficient use of taxpayer dollars, and in an era when defense spending is falling, this really stings.

The Hill reported recently that a massive U.S. Army blimp that broke free of its moorings in Maryland had to be shot down in order to save it from drifting outside U.S. airspace.

The Daily Beast, meanwhile, noted that a pair of F-16 fighter jets were scrambled to shoot down the blimp, which eventually landed in Pennsylvania, according to officials with the North American Aerospace Defense Command.

A NORAD spokesman, Captain Scott Miller, said that the blimp had been "grounded" in Montour County, Pennsylvania at 3:40 p.m. on the same afternoon it broke loose while stationed at Aberdeen Proving Ground just over three hours earlier. The airship, formerly known as a Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System (JLENS), eventually flew more than 160 miles and reached an altitude of 16,000 feet.

The Daily Beast reported the following, which seems to contradict what The Hill reported:

A portion of the blimp's tail fell off and it had deflated by the time it reached the ground, Miller said. NORAD will launch an investigation into the cause of the incident; Miller said the military does not know what caused the blimp to deflate but that it was not "intentionally" deflated. Miller added that there was no consideration of shooting it down.

During its flight, the airship dragged along 6,700 feet of tethering, which snagged power lines and took out electricity for about 30,000 people. As it drifted across the states, it became fodder for memes, even sparking the creation of a Twitter account, @AberdeenBlimp.

Smaller versions of blimp-like airships have been deployed to the Iraq and Afghanistan theaters. They are equipped with sophisticated camera systems that ground crews at nearby forward operating bases utilized to keep watch on surrounding terrain in order to prevent enemy forces from planting roadside bombs or launching surprise attacks. They were also an inexpensive replacement for drones, which require fuel and more manpower. During both wars, blimps would sometimes come loose during bad weather and had to be shot down by U.S. or NATO forces.

Regarding the JLENS mishap, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter said that it might have broken from its mooring due to "bad weather." However, he would not say how it could be retrieved, only admitting that the department's focus was in "getting it to descend" while stopping short of describing the method.

The JLENS was first proposed in 1998. Major defense contractor Raytheon was given the green light to manufacture it, but it far exceeded costs (as do most weapons systems). By 2012, U.S. taxpayers had ponied up nearly $2 billion but still did not have an airborne platform to show for the expense.

Costly but effective?

Instead, most of the money had gone to working out several design and developmental issues. At one stage, the Defense Department considered killing off the program but instead spent $6 billion more to build 14 pairs of them.

"Filled with 590,000 cubic feet of non-flammable helium, JLENS uses two tethered aerostats, each 240 feet long. Originally crafted in 2013 to detect cruise missiles, its radar's reach expanded to drones, tanks, and small planes," The Daily Beast reported.

The U.S. Army is officially listed as the developer. According to a March 2014 Government Accountability Office report, the project cost $2.78 billion to create. Each airship costs roughly $175 million to build and outfit with a complete suite of sensors, radar and other gear.

The JLENS that broke loose from Aberdeen had been flying over the base, which is about 45 miles north of Washington, D.C., since the end of 2014 for a three-year test. The blimp's mission was to spot threats approaching the nation's capital as well as up and down the East Coast for hundreds of miles in either direction. They are designed to stay aloft for about a month at a time.

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