WASHINGTON -- The military's long-troubled program to use massive, radar-carrying blimps for missile defense has suffered another setback -- the loss of three-fourths of its expected funding.
The federal budget for fiscal 2016, finalized this week by Senate and House leaders, provides $10.5 million for the JLENS program. President Barack Obama had asked for $40.5 million.
Officials on Capitol Hill were reluctant to speculate what the $30 million cut might mean for the future of JLENS, which was developed for the Army by Raytheon Co. But a House aide who specializes in defense matters said: "We think the cut sends a signal to (the Defense Department) to reduce or shut down the program."
In the budget bill, congressional leaders provided only a three-word explanation for the funding cut: "Test schedule delay." That was a reference to the chaotic events of Oct. 28, when a JLENS blimp broke loose from its mooring at an Army installation at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland.
The pilotless blimp floated uncontrolled for several hours over Maryland and Pennsylvania, disrupting civil aviation and clipping power lines with its 6,700-foot tether. The blimp finally came to rest in rural Moreland Township, Pa.
The test cited in the budget bill is a three-year, $150 million "operational exercise" in which a pair of JLENS blimps was to stand watch over Washington, D.C., and the capital region, serving as an early warning system in the event of an attack by cruise missiles or other low-flying weapons.
The Army suspended the exercise after the October mishap, pending the conclusion of an investigation into what caused the blimp to break free. On Thursday, a spokeswoman for the JLENS program, Major Beth R. Smith, said the investigation could last "approximately 90 more days."
JLENS -- a loose acronym of Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System -- was developed to protect U.S. troops in combat and American cities and towns by patrolling at altitudes up to 10,000 feet.
At that height, according to Raytheon, the radar can see 340 miles in any direction, far beyond the limits that Earth's curvature imposes on land- or sea-based radar.
The 242-foot-long blimps are designed to operate in pairs. One searches widely for threats. The other is supposed to focus narrowly on airborne objects and transmit "fire control" data on their location, speed and trajectory. U.S. fighter jets or ground-based rockets would use the fire-control data to intercept and destroy an intruder.
The program has cost taxpayers about $2.7 billion since its inception in 1998 -- and has yet to provide operational missile defense.
In tests, the JLENS radar has struggled to track flying objects and to distinguish friendly aircraft from threatening ones.
A 2012 report by the Pentagon's Operational Test and Evaluation office faulted JLENS in four "critical performance areas'" and rated its reliability as "poor." In its most recent assessment, in 2013, the office said JLENS had "low system reliability."