Look! Up in the sky! It's an antimissile blimp!

Known as JLENS, a new program that could be deployed by next year aims to protect Washington, D.C., by putting surveillance radar on tethered blimps 10,000 feet overhead.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
2 min read
A new U.S. military program aims to protect the nation's capital by mounting anti-missile surveillance radar on blimps like this one, which would hover high overhead. Raytheon

If you visit the Washington, D.C. area in coming years and see a pair of large blimp hovering high overhead, there's a good chance they won't belong to Goodyear.

Instead, they could well belong to the Pentagon, which is in the late stages of testing a new program that was designed to deploy blimps over the nation's capital as a form of anti-missile defense. Raytheon, the program's lead contractor, said Wednesday it has completed one of last major milestones necessary for real-world deployment.

Known as JLENS, or Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System (PDF), the program involves putting a Raytheon-designed radar system on board a pair of 74-foot-high tethered airships, a system that is being pitched as matching the surveillance abilities of five spy planes, but with half the manpower and at a cost 700 percent less.

Raytheon said that JLENS could help the military defend Washington -- or anywhere else that it is deployed -- against threats such as tactical ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, hostile drones, swarming boats, and mine-laying ships, among others. The system, which is supposed to be able to stay at an altitude of 10,000 feet for 30 days, has an on-board "over-the-horizon" sensor package designed to scan hundreds of miles for those threats.

One of the two blimps is devoted to a 360-degreee surveillance radar, while the second has a fire-control radar. Raytheon said JLENS can detect potential attacks from as much as 340 miles away.

Army personnel are seen testing the JLENS system at the Dugway Proving Grounds in Utah. Raytheon

Today, Raytheon announced that it conducted a test of the JLENS system between May 4 and June 14 at the U.S. Army's Dugway Proving Grounds in Utah. The so-called "early user testing" was one of the final major milestones before the military takes JLENS to the Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland, Raytheon said. The company said that it is making some modifications as a result of the tests, and that JLENS should be ready to deploy at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds next year.

Raytheon said that before the Army can deploy JLENS in Maryland, it must deflate and pack up the blimp, and transfer the soldiers that participated in the tests in Utah.

In a release, Raytheon also said that the Utah testing put JLENS through a series of "operational" situations.