The Student News Site of University of Arizona

The Daily Wildcat

64° Tucson, AZ

The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


Column: Military funding just a bunch of hot air

When $2.7 billion goes into a single failed government project, we would expect it to be overhauled. We would expect this to be a wake up call and for them to go in a new direction. This would likely be the case for most government entities, except for our military. 

On Oct. 28, an unmanned military surveillance blimp in Maryland broke from its tethers and floated 150 miles to Pennsylvania while military officials tried to figure out how to bring it down. Two F-16 fighter jets tracked it down for several hours before it deflated on its own in a rural area of Exchange, Pennsylvania. While no one was injured, “the tether attached to the aircraft caused widespread power outages across Pennsylvania,” said a statement from Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf’s office. 

What started in 1998 as a $292 million project to build a surveillance blimp quickly gained momentum after the attack on the twin towers on 9/11. Named the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System, or JLENS for short, it was intended to detect enemy drones, missiles and planes over 300 miles away to protect the Eastern Seaboard. 

In 2005, the military commissioned 27 of these blimps at $182 million each, however, the expenses have since added up. In 2010, an accident with a civilian balloon crashed into and destroyed a JLENS blimp, and just like that, $182 million was gone. 

The system was not working as planned. It did not live up to its expectations, and despite some attempts to shut down the program, the military kept pumping money into it for the next five years. It took a runaway fiasco, several years,and $2.7 billion dollars before the army even decided to consider whether or not to continue with this program. 

A Los Angeles Times investigation of the JLENS project earlier this year demonstrates how unnecessary funds have been pumped into this “zombie” program. The JLENS system, which was supposed to detect any unidentified airborne intruder, allowed a man in a gyrocopter to coast through 30 miles of restricted airspace and land on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol. While this man was simply trying to prove a point about the allocation of government funding, this was the kind of threat JLENS was supposed to detect. 

According to the Los Angeles Times investigation, “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 addition, the program has performed poorly in tests to differentiate between enemy aircrafts and friendly ones, it has software glitches, it was not able to carry out unmanned surveillance for 30 days as it was designed to and the detection system has very low reliability. Plus, blimps can be grounded by bad weather and would be very susceptible to enemy attack in a warzone. 

The fact that this project continued to procure government funding despite its obvious flaws is absolutely ridiculous. If this were in any other area, such as healthcare or education, chances are it would not have gone this far, and it may have even helped some people along the way.

The worst part is that this is such a small portion of the government’s military funding that it barely makes a dent in the total military expenditures. As of 2015, 53.71 percent, almost $600 billion, of the government’s discretionary funding was allocated to the military. This failed project alone was less than 0.5 percent of the total military expenditure. 

If this $2.7 billion were our entire military funding, we would still be in the top 60 countries for military spending. The U.S. already spends more on military than the next seven countries combined, and more than three times as much as the second most funded military in China. 

The amount of funding that goes into our military is exorbitantly high. The JLENS project was not known to much of the public until the Los Angeles Times investigation earlier this year, so who knows how many other “zombie” projects are leeching taxpayer money. Maybe this is this the real zombie apocalypse we should be worried about. 

Follow Apoorva Bhaskara on Twitter.

More to Discover
Activate Search