Last Updated: 03/11/2013*

It’s the kind of scenario that keeps military leaders up at night.

A rogue regime, in defiance of international convention, tests a weapon of mass destruction. Days later, during the course of what it calls a “routine military exercise,” it disperses mobile ballistic missile launchers into the countryside. Suddenly it launches a missile at a neighboring nation, and defenders across the border rush to respond.

One JLENS orbit can provide the same 24/7 coverage for a 30-day period that 4-5 fixed wing surveillance aircraft can provide.
One JLENS orbit can provide the same 24/7 coverage for a 30-day period that 4-5 fixed wing surveillance aircraft can provide.

“If you’re a commander, you want as much advance warning as possible,” said retired Army Brig. Gen. Keith McNamara, who leads business development for Raytheon’s Global Integrated Sensors. “You need to know where those missiles came from as quickly as possible so you can neutralize that launcher and prevent it from firing again.”

Raytheon has demonstrated a new technology that does just that. During a test last year, its JLENS system of tethered airships detected and tracked four ballistic missiles immediately after launch. JLENS also accurately estimated the launch sites.

The aerostats fly as high as 10,000 feet above sea level and can remain aloft and operational for up to 30 days.
The aerostats fly as high as 10,000 feet above sea level and can remain aloft and operational for up to 30 days.

The test marked the first time JLENS had tracked tactical ballistic missiles. The system has previously targeted small speedboats, cars, trucks, trains, manned and unmanned aircraft, and land- and maritime-attack cruise missiles.

JLENS is a system of two aerostats, or tethered airships, that float 10,000 feet in the air. The aerostats, each nearly as long as a football field, carry powerful radars that can look deep into enemy territory.

The system’s name stands for Joint Land-attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor because it was originally envisioned as a defense against cruise missiles.

A JLENS orbit uses less than 50% of the manpower it requires to fly a fixed wing aircraft.
A JLENS orbit uses less than 50% of the manpower it requires to fly a fixed wing aircraft.

The most recent test shows JLENS can detect a ballistic missile launch during its ascent, or “boost” phase, giving commanders more time to warn civilians, launch interceptors and send aircraft to prevent additional attacks.

And unlike aircraft, the JLENS aerostats can stay aloft for 30 days at a time, saving fuel and personnel costs.

“JLENS is going to be a game-changer for the warfighter,” McNamara said. “Demonstrating JLENS’ ballistic missile defense capability just underscores the value this system brings to our nation, our military and our allies.”

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