A pair of big, blimp-like craft, moored to the ground and flying as high as 10,000 feet, are to be added to a high-tech shield designed to protect the Washington D.C. area from air attack, at least for a while.
The bulbous, helium-filled "aerostats" - each more than three quarters the length of a football field at 243 feet - are to be stitched into existing defenses as part of an exercise of new technology ordered by the Defense Department, according to a defense press release.
The coming addition to the umbrella over Washington is known as Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System, or JLENS.
NORAD, a binational command, is responsible for defending air space over the United States and Canada, including the Washington area with its many pieces of important infrastructure.
To expand the time available to detect and defend against any future attacks from commercial aircraft, major changes were made under Operation Noble Eagle, combat air patrols begun after the September 11 attacks.
U.S. Army Sentinel radars for low-altitude radar coverage and short-range Stinger/Avenger missile batteries were deployed.
The JLENS craft are expected to arrive in the capital area by September 30, according to Kucharek, who is also a spokesman for the U.S. Northern Command, which coordinates the Pentagon's homeland defense role.
Operating as high as 10,000 feet for up to 30 days at a time, JLENS is meant to give the military more time to detect and react to threats, including cruise missiles and manned and unmanned aircraft, compared with ground-based radar.
The system is also designed to defend against tactical ballistic missiles, large caliber rockets and moving vehicles that could be used for attacks, including boats, cars and trucks.
Blimp-like craft offer several advantages compared with fixed-wing aircraft, including lower cost, larger payload capacity and extended time aloft.
Peter Huessy, a consultant on nuclear deterrence and missile defense, said the system would compliment current U.S. missile-defense capabilities.