Financial Breakdown: A Very Expensive Aerostat?

JLENS great background from Raytheon

Image from Raytheon

This is the second blog in our ‘Q&As from the Poster Session’ series.

Given that the JLENS project will be launched less than six months from now, many citizens and community members may have questions regarding the financial agenda of JLENS. When Skywatchdc presented at Georgetown University  last week, we received a number of questions pertaining to the cost and allocation of funds. Part of our goal is to make useful information about the JLENS project available to the general public.

Jim Wolf states in a Reuters article that the $450 million project will cover the cost of two ‘twin’ aerostats that make up the system. (See this Skywatchdc post which discusses the system in further detail). There appears to be limited data or information related to specific budgetary amounts of the JLENS project, which may be due to the classified nature of the military project.

The JLENS project was supposed to be more robust than it is currently. According to Bloomberg, 32 surveillance-capable aerostats were supposed to be developed in 2007, at a cost of $6 billion. By 2012, only four aerostats were ready for full testing and faced initial issues such as poor target recognition and limited identification capabilities. The article speculates that this may be a reason why only two aerostats are being unveiled in 2013. The official reason is the deep budget cuts. Implementing two areostats reduces the costs signifcantly compared to implementing 32. However, the testing provides Raytheon and the U.S. Army the opportunity to fix any issues during the three years JLENS is deployed in Maryland and then improve the system should it be decided to establish more aerostat technologies in the region.

According to Raytheon’s JLENS website, this project is an “affordable defense from real world threats.” Raytheon, a public-traded company, has a stock value currently of $56.94 per share (at the time of this writing) and works closely with the military. The company’s net sales totaled $24.4 billion in 2012.

Wolf, Jim.  “Blimps to bolster Washington’s air shield in test.” Reuters. 1 Feb 2013. <http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/02/01/usa-blimps-raytheon-idUSL1N0AZIJW20130201&gt;

Berfield, Susan. “Raytheon Missile-Seeking Blimp to Get Test Run Guarding Capital.” Bloomberg. Bloomberg L.P. 28 Feb. 2013. <http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-02-28/raytheon-missile-seeking-blimp-to-get-test-run-guarding-capital.html&gt;

“JLENS.” Raytheon. Raytheon Company. 2013. <http://www.raytheon.com/capabilities/products/jlens/&gt;

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JLENS on Earth Day: Ecological & Environmental Impacts

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Photograph Courtesy of Alexdi

While studies have yet to show the environmental impact of JLENS on the region (perhaps this will be incorporated into the 3-year test at the Aberdeen Proving Ground beginning this September), Skywatchdc is able to draw some conclusions through our research.

Oak Ridge National Laboratory issued a report in 2000 focusing on the environmental impacts of military testing with fixed-wing aircraft. These aircraft are often cited as the primary means of surveillance and response in the DC region. The report, titled “ECOLOGICAL RISK ASSESSMENT FRAMEWORK FOR LOW ALTITUDE OVERFLIGHTS BY FIXED-WING AND ROTARY-WING MILITARY AIRCRAFT” examines specifically the impact that noise, erosion, and collisions have on ecosystems, including data from Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland.

More than 60% of the following bird populations in the study were significantly affected by low-altitude fixed-wing aircraft testing at a slant distance of closer than 400 meters:

  • Red-tailed Hawk
  • Osprey
  • Mexican Spotted Owl
  • Peregrine Falcon
  • Bald Eagle

More than 60% of the following animal populations in the study were significantly affected by low-altitude fixed-wing aircraft testing at a slant distance of closer than 500 meters:

  • Woodland Caribou
  • Walrus
  • Moose
  • Harbor Seal
  • Mountain Sheep
  • California Sea Lion
  • Pronghorn

Diagram From the ORNL Report Focusing on the Ecological Impacts of Low-Altitude Fixed-Wing Aircraft Testing on Ungulates (Hoofed Animals):

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What Do We Know about JLENS and the Environment?

  1. Noise: JLENS makes very little noise, if any. It does not require speed to stay aloft, and is completely silent while at surveillance range. Minimal noise may occurs during takeoff and landing, but not at a decibel level anywhere close to fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters.
  2. Erosion: We don’t know yet how the mobile mooring may affect ground ecosystems, but we do know that it is significantly smaller than a landing strip for fixed-wing aircraft. Additionally, landing and takeoff create no wind (even with smaller landing areas, helicopters generate a significant amount of wind that disturbs the surrounding area).
  3. Collision: Bird collisions are both a danger to aircraft and to ecosystems. To a lesser extent, animal collisions on a runway are also a concern. JLENS is unmanned, eliminating any threat to human life. There are not yet studies on bird collisions with the aerostat or its tethers, but the risk of engines and turbines accompanied by tremendous noise is far more dangerous to birds.
  • Additional Factor: JLENS does not use fossil fuels and only requires helium gas to stay aloft for 30 days at a time. Fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters contribute to air pollution.

It is safe to conclude that JLENS is more environmentally friendly than many other aircraft used for local surveillance and response. Areas of further research may include: effects on migratory birds (including tether line and surveillance altitude) and the effect of mobile mooring on land ecosystems.