They say there's "no such thing as bad publicity." If that's true, then Raytheon (NYSE:RTN) should be smiling -- because the company's new JLENS eye-in-the-sky aerostat got itself a heaping helping of free publicity last week.


Up, up, and away... flew Raytheon's beautiful balloon. Image source: Raytheon.

Recalling JLENS
JLENS, as you may recall, is the $2.8 billion Pentagon program whereby the Department of Defense hired Raytheon to build it a pair of high-tech aerostats for missile defense and anti-aircraft patrol duties on the American East Coast. Positioned over Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland, and held in place by a one-inch-diameter cable doing double duty as a conduit for communication between aerostat and ground control, Raytheon's JLENS blimps have since late last year been tasked with keeping an eye on sea and air traffic in the Washington, D.C., area.

Apparently this wasn't the most interesting of tasks, however. And so earlier this week, one of Raytheon's aerostats decided to go AWOL for a while, and take a little stroll along the East Coast, up north into Pennsylvania. Breaking free from its post, the blimp floated on the breeze, dragging its 6,700-foot-long cable behind it, wreaking havoc and knocking down power lines in its wake.

Three hours later, JLENS was finally brought to rest in Moreland Township, Pennsylvania  -- at which point it was promptly surrounded by Pennsylvanian policemen and shot multiple times with shotguns. (Yes, seriously. They were trying to deflate it so it could be trucked back to base.) Of course, by that point, news reports indicate that JLENS might have already caused in excess of $2 million worth of property damage from its cable dragging along the ground.

This shouldn't have happened -- but happens all the time
In a website description of JLENS, Raytheon avers that the chance of JLENS breaking free "is very small." And yet, Defense Secretary Ash Carter notes that similar spy aerostats deployed in Afghanistan have in fact broken free from their tethers "on a number of occasions."

All this still leaves the question of what the JLENS incident means for Raytheon going forward. The obvious answer, though -- that there will be a public outcry against the program, leading to its cancellation and an end to Raytheon's hopes to expand the JLENS program into uses such as border patrol in the U.S. -- might not be the right one. Currently, the Pentagon has suspended use of JLENS while it conducts "a complete and thorough investigation" into what went wrong. While it's certainly possible that the military will decide to ground JLENS permanently based on October's incident, the $2.8 billion invested in JLENS already argues strongly in favor of fixing problems with the aerostats, rather than abandoning them and writing off the investment. All the more so because no one seems to be insisting that JLENS be canceled.

To the contrary, the outpouring of mirth we saw on the Internet this week over the JLENS incident suggests that most taxpayers seem to have taken JLENS' shenanigans all in good fun. Outrage over the damage JLENS caused over the course of its 160-mile walkabout was notably absent from Twitter postings, much less widespread calls for the program's termination.

In fact, if all Raytheon suffers from this incident is liability for a couple of million dollars' worth of property damage, it may be money well spent -- an accidental marketing budget to give JLENS wider exposure on a whirlwind tour.

Rich Smith owns shares of Raytheon. You can find him on Motley Fool CAPS, publicly pontificating under the handle TMFDitty, where he's currently ranked No. 280 out of more than 75,000 rated members.

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