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The U.S. Army wants to add a launch site at Dugway Proving Ground for drones that would fly south 150 miles over the Snake Valley in western Utah and back to the Army base.

The Army unveiled the plan at a public briefing Wednesday night in Salt Lake City; the new launch site requires an amendment to the project's environmental document.

The drones — unmanned aircraft with 10-foot wing spans — are used to test a new anti-cruise missile system at Dugway. The Army began testing the new system, called JLENS for Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System, last year.

JLENS involves two radar-equipped airships called aerostats — tethered balloons resembling blimps — each nearly the size of a football field. They are tethered 16 miles north of Interstate 80 between Salt Lake City and Wendover, and are equipped with radar that will detect and track the drones as they fly over Snake Valley, as far as 150 miles away.

The drones have no payloads but are used to simulate cruise missiles, which the military sees as an emerging threat because they are fairly cheap and easy for rogue states to acquire, said Damon Nicholson, JLENS program manager for the Army.

It's an Army program, run in cooperation with the Air Force, but if JLENS proves successful, it will help every branch of the military better detect the low-flying missiles, Nicholson said. The aerostats won't shoot down the missiles, but will alert those who can.

The Army several years ago went through the environmental vetting process required by the National Environmental Protection Act to launch the drones from Eskdale, near the Nevada border 120 miles from Dugway.

Just before launching was to begin last year, however, the Air Force — which controls the airspace over Snake Valley — informed the Army it didn't have permission from the Federal Aviation Administration to fly the simulated missiles below 100 feet, Nicholson said.

So the Army punted, using an option in the environmental document allowing a "categorical exclusion" to temporarily launch the drones from a site on base, in an area called Wig, about 20 miles north of the main airfield.

Six drones were launched from the site in December and now the Army wants to amend its environmental document to allow more launches through 2013. Meanwhile, the Air Force continues to work with the FAA to secure permission for launches from Eskdale as well.

Drones launched at Eskdale will land on Dugway property with the help of parachutes; drones launched from Dugway will fly to Eskdale and back to the Dugway before landing. —

Drone briefings

Two public briefings about the U.S. Army's plan to add a second launch site for drones are planned in the Snake Valley on Tuesday. The first will be at the Eskdale Community Center at 2 p.m. The second will be at 5 p.m. at West Desert High School in Trout Creek. Dugway Proving Ground spokeswoman Paula Thomas said the briefings will be cancelled if the weather makes travel hazardous.