Combat SkySat: Cheap Near-Space Communications Relay at JEFX 06
The Pentagon has shown interest in blimps for “near space” use in a variety of roles, from radar surveillance to communications relays. In our in-depth look at the US military’s future $14-18 billion Transformational Satellite (TSAT) system, DID also had this to say:
“In terms of long term trends, it’s also worthy of note that a combination of narrowband satellites and MARTS-type communications aerostats for theater communications, wideband AEHF satellites for mission-critical high-bandwidth transfers like UAV video, encrypted communications via commercial satellite carriers, and laid fiber-optic cables for strategic communications are already appearing on the scene… Throw in the possibility of finding new ways to leverage existing systems, and this constellation definitely represents a potential “incremental competition” threat to TSAT.”
Add one more piece to this array of incremental options, courtesy of a system currently under examination at the 2006 Joint Expeditionary Force Experiment (JEFX 06)…
Combat Skysat is “a bent pipe [radio] repeater the size of a coffeemaker” launched into near-space between 65,000 and 95,000 feet. It’s attached to what can be compared to a weather balloon, and its line of sight gives it a coverage “footprint” of about 600 miles that extends even into urban and mountainous environments with clear transmissions.
That’s a significant improvement over ground radios’ 5-10 mile range, and the USAF article explicitly notes its plusses vis-a-vis satellite communications:
“In the past, satellites were used to provide the long-range relay ability for ground communique, but the lines were often clogged with high-priority information and were too slow for the fast-paced ground environment… With the cost of commercial geosynchronous satellites averaging more than $300 million a pop, the $6,000 skysat makes “low-priced” seem like a slight understatement.”
Special operations teams may also appreciate the ability to carry just one antenna for some missions, instead of switching out between SATCOM and UHF. The balloon takes about 20 minutes to launch, but can stay in the air an average of 12 hours per flight. It is remotely flown from the launch site through ballast and vent controls, much like those on a hot-air balloon. When done, it can be retrieved or left behind at the team’s discretion. See Air force link article.