Maker Raytheon and its supporters claim the JLENS airships as the answer to an ever-evolving list of threats: cruise missiles, drones and other small aircraft, “swarming” boats, even explosives-laden trucks.

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WASHINGTON — The Pentagon has spent $2.7 billion developing a system of giant radar-equipped blimps to provide an early warning if the country were ever attacked with cruise missiles, drones or other low-flying weapons.

After nearly two decades of disappointment and delay, the system — known as JLENS — had a chance to prove its worth April 15.

That day, a Florida postal worker flew a single-seat, rotary-wing aircraft into the heart of the nation’s capital to dramatize his demand for campaign-finance reform.

What’s a JLENS?

Short for Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System.

Airships: Helium-filled blimps are 242 feet long and weigh 7,000 pounds. They are anchored to the ground by 1 1/8-inch-thick Kevlar tethers, which also holds wiring for electricity.

Radar range: With a maximum altitude of 10,000 feet, the radar can see 340 miles in any direction.

Cost: The Pentagon has spent more than $2.7 billion on the program. A three-year trial run above the Washington, D.C., area cost taxpayers about $50 million a year.

JLENS is intended to spot just such a tree-skimming intruder, and two of the blimps were supposed to be standing sentry above the capital region. Yet Douglas Hughes flew undetected through 30 miles of highly restricted airspace before landing on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol.

At a congressional hearing afterward, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, demanded to know how “a dude in a gyrocopter 100 feet in the air” was able to pull off such an audacious stunt.

“Whose job is it to detect him?” Chaffetz asked.

It was JLENS’ job, but the system was “not operational” that day, as the head of the North American Aerospace Defense Command, Adm. William E. Gortney, told Chaffetz. The admiral offered no estimate for when it would be.

Seventeen years after its birth, JLENS is a stark example of what defense specialists call a “zombie” program: costly, ineffectual and seemingly impossible to kill.

In news releases, Raytheon, the Pentagon’s lead contractor for JLENS, has asserted that the system is “proven,” “capable,” “performing well right now” and “ready to deploy today.”

The Los Angeles Times found otherwise:

• In tests, JLENS 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 the system in four “critical performance areas” and rated its reliability as “poor.” A year later, in its most recent assessment, the agency again cited serious deficiencies and said JLENS had “low system reliability.”

Top contractors

JLENS has supported hundreds of jobs in various states. Here is a look at some of the companies involved.

Raytheon

Headquarters: Waltham, Mass.

Role: Lead contractor for the program, Raytheon has assembled, installed and operated JLENS radars at various sites, including in Massachusetts, Maryland and Southern California.

Amount paid: $1.8 billion from 2006 to June 2015.

Influence: Paid $320,000 to firms headed by former U.S. Sens. Trent Lott, R-Miss., and John Breaux, D-La., for lobbying related to JLENS and other defense programs in 2011 and 2012.

TCOM

Headquarters: Columbia, Md.

Role: Manufactured blimps and supplied ground equipment at sites in Maryland and North Carolina.

Amount paid: Paid through Raytheon. Amounts not listed in public records.

Influence: Spent $100,000 in 2012-2013 lobbying Congress on JLENS. Its lobbyist is Michael Khatchadurian, a former staff aide to Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee and, later, to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Los Angeles Times

• The system is designed to provide continuous air-defense surveillance for 30 days at a time, but had not managed to do so.

• Software glitches have hobbled its ability to communicate with the nation’s air-defense networks — a critical failing, given that JLENS’ main purpose is to alert U.S. forces to incoming threats.

• The massive, milk-white blimps can be grounded by bad weather and, if deployed in combat zones, would be especially vulnerable to enemy attack.

• Even if all those problems could be overcome, it would be prohibitively expensive to deploy enough of the airships to protect the United States along its borders and coasts.

These findings emerged from a review of reports by the Pentagon testing office and the Government Accountability Office and from interviews with defense scientists and active and retired military officers.

Despite the system’s documented shortcomings, Raytheon and other backers have marshaled support in Congress and the military to keep taxpayer money flowing to the program.

They have done so, in part, by depicting JLENS as the answer to an ever-evolving list of threats: cruise missiles, drones and other small aircraft, “swarming” boats, even explosives-laden trucks.

Army leaders tried to kill JLENS in 2010, The Times learned. What happened next illustrates the difficulty of extinguishing even a deeply troubled defense program.

Raytheon mobilized its congressional lobbyists. Within the Pentagon, Marine Corps Gen. James E. “Hoss” Cartwright, then vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, came to JLENS’ defense, arguing that it held promise for enhancing the nation’s air defenses.

At Cartwright’s urging, money was found in 2011 for a trial run of the technology in the skies above Washington, D.C.

Cartwright retired the same year — and joined Raytheon’s board of directors five months later. As of the end of 2014, Raytheon had paid him more than $828,000 in cash and stock for serving as a director, Securities and Exchange Commission records show.

Raytheon declined requests to talk about the JLENS program. Cartwright, who remains a Raytheon director, did not respond to messages seeking comment.

Philip Coyle, who oversaw assessments of dozens of major weapons systems as the Pentagon’s director of operational testing from 1994 to 2001, said Congress should closely examine whether JLENS deserves any more taxpayer dollars.

The cost of a blimp-borne radar network extensive enough to defend the nation against cruise missiles “would be enormous,” Coyle said.

“When you look at the full system — all the pieces that are required — that’s when it gets really daunting,” he said.

Airborne radar

JLENS is short for Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System — Pentagon-speak for airborne radar that is linked, or “netted,” to the nation’s air-defense network.

The radar is kept aloft by pilotless, helium-filled airships, each 242 feet long. At the blimps’ maximum altitude of 10,000 feet, 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 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.

If JLENS were working as intended, U.S. fighter jets or ground-based rockets would use the fire-control data to intercept and destroy an intruder.

The 7,000-pound airships are anchored to the ground by thick Kevlar tethers, which also hold wiring for electricity. A ground crew of about 130 is needed to operate a pair of blimps around the clock.

Military planners have long been intrigued by the idea of hovering surveillance platforms that would allow radar to see beyond the horizon and stand guard for long periods. The Army awarded the first JLENS contract in 1998 to a joint venture led by Raytheon, for an estimated $292 million.

Headquartered in Waltham, Mass., Raytheon assembled the radar. The blimps and ground equipment were built by TCOM, based in Columbia, Md. Numerous subcontractors provided other services.

In November 2005, the Army added $1.3 billion to Raytheon’s JLENS contract, and the government committed to buy 28 blimps.

But problems emerged with the software for the fire-control radar, causing repeated delays in testing. Doubts also grew within the Army about whether JLENS — even if it could ever be made operational — would serve a real need.

Its original selling point was that it could be swiftly moved around within a battle theater. But that became implausible, given the extensive ground facilities required to support JLENS, including power generators and reinforced concrete pads to anchor the airships.

A more serious problem was that even a fully functioning JLENS wouldn’t be much use against the weapons that were killing and maiming U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan: crude rockets, artillery and roadside bombs.

A mishap at a test facility in Elizabeth City, N.C., operated by TCOM, further soured Army leaders on JLENS.

During a storm on Sept. 30, 2010, a civilian balloon broke loose from its mooring, destroying a grounded JLENS blimp that had cost about $182 million.

By then, the Pentagon had poured more than $2 billion into JLENS and did not have an operational system to show for it.

Planners estimated it would take billions more to deliver JLENS as originally promised.

At the insistence of Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, then the Army’s vice chief of staff, officials canceled plans to buy the full complement of 28 blimps and prepared to kill the program.

Snapping into action

Raytheon sent into action a team of lobbyists that included former U.S. Sens. Trent Lott, R-Miss., and John Breaux, D-La., as well as two of their former Senate aides.

The company put forth an expanded rationale for JLENS, asserting that it could be used to protect not just troops in combat, but also American cities and towns.

Inside the military, Cartwright and other JLENS supporters sought to overcome the Army’s opposition by arguing that the system could bolster “situational awareness” of airborne threats, adding a valuable capability to existing early-warning networks.

The system’s backers depicted JLENS as a bargain, saying it could provide continuous aerial surveillance at a fraction of what it would cost to keep the military’s radar planes in the air around the clock.

The rescue effort was fortified by JLENS’ broad economic footprint: The program has supported hundreds of blue- and white-collar jobs in Southern California, Massachusetts, Maryland, North Carolina, Texas, Alabama, New Mexico, Utah, Oregon and Virginia.

Nevertheless, Army leaders said that if Cartwright and others wanted to keep JLENS going, the Army should not be required to pay for it. JLENS advocates responded by seeking some of what would be needed for the three-year test exercise from Defense Department research and development funds.

By the spring of 2011, the system’s supporters had prevailed in the Pentagon. Soon thereafter, Congress approved the funding.

JLENS would live on.

So would its stubborn technical problems.

Cost to taxpayers

The three-year trial run above the Washington, D.C., area — officially, an “operational exercise” — is costing taxpayers about $50 million a year.

In announcing the test exercise in December, the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) said the first blimp would be deployed that month, “followed approximately six weeks later by the second.”

A Raytheon news release dated Dec. 27, 2014, said JLENS “is strategically emplaced to help defend Washington, D.C., and a Texas-sized portion of the East Coast.”

The first blimp went aloft in December. But software problems with the fire-control radar have kept the required second airship on the ground for most of this year.

That is why Douglas Hughes was able to fly his gyrocopter through D.C. airspace, undetected.

A military spokeswoman, Army Maj. Beth R. Smith, said the difficulty in launching the second blimp involved “software issues” affecting the integration of JLENS data “into the NORAD air defense network.”

The second airship was briefly sent aloft Aug. 18 and again Aug. 22. Each flight lasted only about an hour, according to another spokeswoman, Air Force Maj. Katrina G. Andrews.

JLENS is now in a “testing and system checkout phase,” she said in September.

Asked whether the system had yet been integrated into the NORAD network, Andrews declined to elaborate.