NEW YORK -- The US military has launched the first of a pair of surveillance balloons capable of spotting an incoming cruise missile above the skies of the eastern seaboard. The 242-feet long helium-filled inflatables, which remain attached to the ground by a 11/8-inch thick super-strong cable, are part of a $2.8billion project to protect American cities from attack. Called the Joint Land-Attack Cruise Missile Elevated Netted Sensor System (JLENS), the sensitive radar on each blimp can track moving pieces of machinery as far as 340 miles away.
Based at an army facility in Baltimore, Maryland, the first aerostat was launched over the weekend, part of a three-year tests of the sensors that can not only detect missiles, but can also train fire on any incoming ordnance. However the use of balloons as a part of a US air defense system has been criticised by privacy advocates who argue the inflatables could be used as a surveillance tool on citizens, even though the two balloons being tested will not carry cameras.
Speaking at the launch Capt. Matt Villa, an officer with the US Army, said: "I can't stress enough there are absolutely no cameras or video equipment on board the system. Its radars cannot detect people, it does not store information… it has no weapons on board." However, David Rocah, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, told The Baltimore Sun: "They enable a kind of persistent surveillance which is not technologically feasible by other means. It is that persistence that creates the invasion."
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