November 25, 2005

Developing the Near Frontier ,between 65,000 feet and 325,000 feet

Developing the Near Frontier

One of the most promising regions of the high frontier is near-space, which is located between 65,000 feet and 325,000 feet.

By Technical Sergeant Jennifer Thibault

As Air Force Space Command (AFSPC) furthers its utilization of the high frontier, it’s looking for persistence that doesn’t have to reside quite so far out of this world. The command is focusing on developing programs that will operate in the near-space region, which is located between 65,000 feet and 325,000 feet.

The driving force behind the exploration of near-space programs is feedback from combatant commanders on space capabilities. In theater, combatant commanders say space capabilities need to be more tailored and responsive to meet their needs. In response, General John Jumper, then Air Force chief of staff, directed AFSPC to start looking at joint warfighter space (JWS) initiatives, including near-space projects.

Jumper assigned AFSPC the responsibility for executing all tactical and operational responsive space capabilities through the space and the near-space mediums. “JWS takes the next step in transforming capabilities by operationalizing space directly to the benefit of the warfighter with an agile, responsive, commander-oriented, combat space vision focused primarily at the tactical and operational levels of war, but able to integrate with the [National Security Space] architecture,” he stated.

The initiative requires space warfighters to integrate space-based capabilities in the tactical and operational levels of war in direct support of the joint force commander. The command anticipates meeting this near-term need with responsive near-space platforms operating communication and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance payloads. AFSPC will take immediate action to create warfighting capabilities that improve effects and situational awareness on today’s battlefield.

“With our current space capabilities, it’s not that the information isn’t available; it’s just that relevant battlespace awareness doesn’t always reach our forces,” said Lieutenant Colonel Ed Herlik, who is with the AFSPC Joint Warfighter Space division. “With near space, we believe we can provide persistence, payload and deterrence.”

An in-theater example sighted by combatant commanders is that blue forces on the ground using line-of-sight radio communications are limited to a footprint of approximately five to seven nautical miles. One of the near space projects currently in the demonstration phase uses communication relay to extend the range of those radios out to nearly 300 nautical miles.

The capability would have a wide range of applications, such as close air support. Today, during close air support missions, the joint tactical air controller (JTAC) transmits information from a ground radio, which may then be funneled through other aircraft before it reaches the strike aircraft. The demonstrated near-space capabilities can provide communication relay, allowing the JTAC to give the briefing to the aircraft well over the horizon, thus decreasing the time the aircraft would have been in range of enemy fire.

“[Near space capability] will provide dedicated communication where it’s currently nonexistent,” said Lieutenant Colonel Toby Volz, chief of the Joint Warfighting Space division. “We can provide communication to folks in theater to use when and where it’s needed. It’s directly in the hands of the warfighter.”

Although near-space project development has been previously unexplored by the military, civilians have been making use of it for more than a year. Commercially developed platforms have been used in Texas and Oklahoma to provide information on gas and oil sites throughout the states.

“Platform operations in near space can give space-like effects without a lot of the space disadvantages,” said Lieutenant Colonel Ed Tomme, deputy director, Air Force Tactical Exploitation of National Capabilities.

Some of those disadvantages are that low-earth-orbiting systems can’t loiter above one spot, and satellite programs are expensive and generally have a long lead time before capabilities are realized.

“Near-space items in the future will be able to provide persistence for days, weeks and even months,” added Tomme.

Sky-High Communications

A more robust communications infrastructure is key to the success of a Global Strike Task Force, Air Force officials have stated.

This includes the capabilities for increased communications coverage, targeting data, location information, mapping files and imagery. The need to be able to quickly deploy forces from the continental United States to some overseas battle areas also requires communications, and command and control infrastructures that can be assembled in a minimum amount of time.

As the world threat has evolved, so has the military’s requirement for having a communications platform that can be easily deployed with little notice and on an as-needed and where-needed basis. Space Data Corp.’s (SDC) military system, dubbed the Combat SkySat Platform, has evolved to meet these demands and the ever-changing security threat our country faces.

The Combat SkySat Platform is basically an adaptation of SDC’s commercial SkySite Platform, an aerial wireless communications network. It enables two-way voice and data communications in geographic regions that are poorly served by existing wireless technologies and services. The SkySite Network simply lifts wireless transceivers into the stratosphere (somewhere between 80,000 feet and 130,000 feet) using industrial balloons to allow low- to medium-rate two-way data communications across a wide area. Although weather balloons have provided critical meteorological data to weather stations worldwide for more than 60 years, SDC was the first to adapt this simple yet reliable concept for commercial communication services.

SDC’s Combat SkySat Program, initiated by an Air Force Space Battlelab contract, was designed to demonstrate the ability of a balloon-borne repeater to extend radio communications beyond the line of sight. The Combat SkySat System was tested in the UHF band using AM and FM modulation schemes. Voice testing incorporated analog and digital transmission methods, and the digital voice tests used both secure and nonsecure links. These tests used military hand-held radios, PRC-148 urban-variant.

PRC-148 radios typically offer a seven- to 10-mile range on the ground. Testing in Arizona with the Air Force showed that the Combat SkySat Repeater System increased range up to 400 miles. In addition, successful tests were accomplished that allowed ground troops direct communications with pilots in the air.

The increased range of communications is not the only advantage of using the Combat SkySat Platform. The launching of a SkySat payload requires only one person per launch. The payloads can be launched and controlled from any field location and for just about any tactical mission.

COTS and currently available military hand-held radios can interoperate with SkySat communication applications. SkySat platforms also offer relatively low-altitude imaging capabilities previously only possible with aircraft-based or satellite-based capabilities. The integration of inexpensive and commercial imaging products can be used for SkySat imaging applications.

The relatively low cost Combat SkySat Platform offers numerous command, control, communications, intelligence and reconnaissance capabilities that can greatly assist our forces both at home and abroad with threat assessment and gathering and disseminating vital information. Since the SkySat infrastructure already has command and control capabilities, just about any terrestrial communications technology can be adapted for use on a SkySat Platform. The system is able to maintain altitudes of up to 130,000 feet carrying platforms weighing as much as 30 pounds. Although satellite communications can provide the warfighter with the necessary coverage, they were not designed or built with the new threats we face every day in mind.

In these days of budget concerns and weapons system cost increases, it is a major victory that a low-cost, easily deployable and sustainable communications capability is available to help today’s warfighter.

Heidi Alvarado Mahoney is deputy program manager for Space Data Corp.


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