They tracked targets in the desert, practiced battening down the hatches for storms and reviewed every switch, button and computer system. Now, after a six-week-long “test-drive” in the Utah wilderness, U.S. Army soldiers are ready to take full control of Raytheon's enormous JLENS airships. Next stop: Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, where the twin-radar system will begin a long-term trial watching over Washington, D.C.

JLENS – which is short for Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System – 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 Army recently put the system and the soldiers who operate it through their paces during a grueling six-week period known as Early User Testing. Previously, Raytheon employees were the primary operators as the military put the system through numerous trials. 

“EUT is when the training wheels come off, Raytheon steps out of the picture, and it’s up to the soldiers to use JLENS the same way they would fight,” said Doug Burgess, Raytheon’s JLENS program director.

JLENS allows the military to defend hundreds of miles of territory at a fraction of the cost of fixed wing aircraft. In February the military used it to track four ballistic missile targets.

Last year in separate tests, the military demonstrated JLENS’ ability to defeat cruise missiles by integrating with the Patriot and Standard Missile 6 defensive systems.

The military also used the system to track a simulated “swarming-boat” attack – a growing threat in key strategic waterways. The JLENS’ sophisticated radars were able to follow those targets while simultaneously tracking aircrafts, cars and trucks.

During the latest testing at Dugway, soldiers ran the JLENS through a number of complex scenarios that simulated what they might face during real attacks. They tested communications links and tracked targets ranging from helicopters to boats.

The soldiers also tested JLENS’ endurance by operating the system continually for 20 days. One drill involved winching the 242-foot-long airships to the ground to protect them during simulated extreme weather.

While the official results of the tests are still pending, everyone is already reaping immediate benefits from the dry run in the desert, Burgess said.

"EUT gave the warfighter the opportunity to put JLENS through its paces, and gave Raytheon the chance to immediately address any issues they uncovered,” Burgess said.  “The result is a better system for the men and women in uniform – and soldiers who are ready to use JLENS when their nation needs them.”