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DUGWAY PROVING GROUND — The ability to fly fast and stealthily are anchors of the military's quest for air superiority.
So how does a blimp the size of a football field that is tethered to the ground fit in to that equation?
The Army and defense contractor Raytheon are hoping the radar system mounted in the anything-but-stealth blimp — often seen by motorists driving on I-80 — can be a defense against incoming cruise missiles and other threats that are too close to the earth to be seen by ground-based radar systems.
"It goes up to 10,000 feet. It can track airplanes, cruise missiles, boats, up to 100 miles and around mountains," said Mark Rose, program manager for Raytheon's Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System, or JLENS.
Airplane-mounted radar systems do the same thing, but at a much higher cost. The airplane crews also have a limited amount of time in the air before they have to land.
The "crew" of the blimp, on the other hand, is on the ground and communicates with the radar equipment aloft through cabling in the tether that keeps the pilotless, engineless blimp from floating away.
It can track airplanes, cruise missiles, boats, up to 100 miles and around mountains.
In the air, the blimp can be on duty 24/7 for as long as a month, "unlike an airplane that has to come down often," Rose said.
JLENS is an early warning system. In a battle setting, it works in pairs, with defensive radar in one balloon and a second radar system in the other that helps warplanes and ground forces find targets.
The blimp's own defenses against attack are twofold: "Because of its range, its ability to look out hundreds of miles, it is far back from the battle area," Raytheon spokesman Mike Nason said.
Up close, the helium that lifts the blimp is contained in small cells that can take direct hits without downing the craft.
"It's not like a toy balloon that goes 'pop'," Rose said. "Even if it does get holes in it, it doesn't come down for weeks."
Raytheon has been testing the new system on the Utah Test and Training Range for the Army at Dugway for the past year and has recently been testing the system at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.
The test blimp in Utah's western desert is in the air most of the time, since endurance is part of the testing, Nason said. It is likely to remain visible to motorists for some time with testing scheduled to continue for another year.