USAF Looking at “Near-Space” Blimps
DID has noted the U.S. military’s increased interest in baloons, blimps and related lighter-than-air craft (LTAs) as transports, communications relays, and sesnor platforms. In Support Rising for Near-Space Blimps, DefenseTech.org reports:
“According to Inside Defense, a 90-day Air Force study has concluded that there would be “military utility” in putting blimps, balloons, and drones in near space — between 65,000 and 350,000 above sea level. Up there, they could serve as cheap substitutes for satellites, relaying communications and snooping on foes. They might be able to carry equipment, effectively becoming giant U-Hauls in the sky. And this could be done, at least in the balloons’ case, without “significantly strain[ing] existing infrastructure or requir[ing] large amounts of equipment or personnel to operate the balloons,” Inside Defense says.”
“Near space” is often considered too high for most aircraft and too low for satellites. Now FOX News adds additional background, and notes that the USAF is considering seeking up to $15 million on near-space operations and research in its 2007 budget, much of which will be focused on balloons and LTAs.
One simple prototype, dubbed “Combat SkySat,” was tested in the skies over Arizona in January through March with a series of 12 test launches. Kirtland Air Force Base NM is also involved in testing near-space craft. People mentioned in the FOX article include Lt. Col. Edward B. Tomme of the Air Force Space Command’s Space Warfare Center; Lt. Col. Toby Volz of Air Force Space Command at Peterson Air Force Base, CO; and the Air Force’s Chief of Staff, Gen. John Jumper.
The FOX News article goes on to detail the hazards and difficulties involved, including higher level of corrosive ozone and UV rays, the new infrastructure required for LTAs, and launch times.
Potential benefits include the creation of an additional resource available at the battlefield command level rather than the national asset level of spy satellites, freeing expensive satellites up for other tasks. Other benefits include improved pictures and easier eavesdropping on low-power communications due to greater proximity, relative cheapness when compared to advanced satellite programs and establishing cellular networks, and the ability to remain on station for very long periods of time. Finally, many of these craft are both outside the normal range of many aircraft and SAMs and resist deflating quickly when punctured, because the pressure inside is close to that of the surrounding air.
The fact that “near space,” unlike outer space, is considered part of a country’s airspace and hence sovereign territory is considered both a positive and a negative consideration.