Look! Up in the sky! Is it a bird? Is it a plane?

No. It's a blimp. And according to Raytheon (NYSE:RTN), it's just what America needs to protect the nation's capital from high-tech threats in the 21st century.

Photo: Raytheon..

At $2.8 billion and 20 years in the making, Raytheon's "JLENS" program will receive its first trial run this fall, when a pair of aerostats (think of the Goodyear blimp, but tethered to the ground by a cable, and stationary) rise over the U.S. Army's Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. There, floated up to a vantage point 10,000 feet in the sky, these blimps will deploy powerful radars capable of seeing out 340 miles in every direction -- and protecting everything under their aegis from hostile attack.

But back up a step. Let's begin at the beginning, with a quick review of what JLENS is.

What exactly is JLENS?
Sometime in the 1990s, as the U.S. Congress began cutting defense spending in an attempt to claim a "peace dividend" after the Cold War's end, the Pentagon began thinking of ways to provide constant aerial surveillance of the homeland, but at something less than the cost of 24-hour aerial patrols by expensive AWACS surveillance planes.

What they came up with was a play on Civil War-era artillery observation balloons. Specifically, helium-filled blimps, tethered to the ground along the U.S. coast, and equipped with radar so as to permit them to see far out to sea. Such "aerostats," as the tethered blimps are known, would be cheaper to operate, and able to remain aloft far longer than jet fuel-hungry airplanes. They'd also be cheaper to build and launch, and easier to repair and upgrade, than spy satellites. And being located closer to Earth, aerostats could instantly communicate what they see to terrestrial air defense systems, such as Patriot and Standard Missile 6 missile batteries on the ground, or AMRAAM-armed fighter aircraft in the air.

JLENS takes all of these ideas and puts them into practice in the form of pairs of 80-yard-long aerostats, tethered in place by cables containing power lines to operate their radars, and fiber optic cables to transmit missile targeting data directly to air defense units at light-speed. Each aerostat can remain aloft for 30 days (or more) at a time. After 30 days, they can be reeled back down to Earth for maintenance and topping off of helium supplies in a few hours' time -- and then sent right back to work.

Each two-aerostat team is termed an "orbit" and includes one aerostat housing a surveillance radar for detecting potential threats. The second aerostat contains a fire control radar that can lock on to any particular incoming object deemed a threat, and guide air defense systems to intercept it.

The net effect: A two-aerostat orbit, says Raytheon, can provide AWACS-level aerial surveillance at less than one-fifth the cost of keeping five AWACS airborne 24/7.

What's new with JLENS?
Many defense contractors have worked on prototype aerostat projects for the U.S. government over the ensuing years. Lockheed Martin (NYSE:LMT), for example, has several aerostats operational along the U.S.-Mexico border, engaged primarily in anti-drug-smuggling operations. Raytheon's system, in contrast, is designed to detect existential threats from "airplanes, drones, and cruise missiles." The system is said to be able to detect "boats, mobile missile launchers, and tanks," and "tactical ballistic missiles and large-caliber rockets" as well.

Lockheed Martin's TARS aerostat. Photo: Lockheed Martin.

How well JLENS performs this mission is what the Army will be testing at Aberdeen, as it deploys JLENS to provide air security for the White House and its environs over the next three years. (From Aberdeen to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is a trip of just 70 miles -- well within JLENS's range). After the trial ends, the Pentagon plans to analyze the performance data collected, and determine whether JLENS is as effective, and as cost-effective, as promised.

What it means to investors
If the Pentagon comes to a positive conclusion, it may proceed with initial plans to build and deploy as many as 16 JLENS "orbits," or 32 blimps. That could be a significant revenue opportunity for Raytheon.

Why? Congress is currently debating whether to fully fund the first trial orbit of JLENS at $54 million per year. In Pentagon terms, that's not much -- there's probably $54 million in loose change rattling around between seat cushions in Pentagon sofas. But if Aberdeen's JLENS is a success, justifying putting all 16 initially planned orbits into operation, well, that could mean as much as $864 million in annual revenues for Raytheon.

That's almost enough to reach the $1 billion level at which we begin talking about "real money" in Washington.