It's a good year for the military's spy blimp program: After years of delays, a huge blimp-like airship will take to the skies over Maryland sometime in the next week as part of a $2.8 billion project that the military says is designed to spot cruise missiles or other threats heading toward Washington, DC, and other East Coast cities. When deployed in full next year, the JLENS—Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System—will feature two tethered airships floating at 10,000 feet and constantly scanning a vast area to detect missiles for other military systems to destroy, the AP reports. The project was built by Raytheon, which says it will work out a lot cheaper than using aircraft to cover the same area.
But privacy advocates fear that the aerostats, which are capable of tracking everything for many miles around if equipped with the right cameras, could become part of what Dan Froomkin at the Intercept calls the "US surveillance leviathan." The military has said they won't be used to spy on US citizens, but with government agencies, "things tend to expand and privacy protections tend to shrink," an ACLU spokesman warns. The blimps, which will be tethered north of Baltimore and easily seen from Interstate 95, are around 80 yards long with a total volume around 600,000 cubic feet. "That’s about the size of three Goodyear blimps," Froomkin notes. "Or over 3,500 white elephants." (In Canada earlier this year, pilots were warned about a runaway beer blimp.)