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TGV MICHELLE-B illustration
Suborbital vehicles may end up playing a critical role in the new concept of “near space” operations. (credit: TGV Rockets)

“Near Space”: a new area of operations or a new Pentagon buzzword?

At the Air Force Association meeting in Washington last week, General John Jumper, the USAF Chief of Staff; Peter Teets, the DoD Space czar; and General Lance Lord, head of Air Force Space Command, all referred to something called “Near Space” which was defined as being between 20 and 300 kilometers altitude. The seam between what had traditionally been regarded as “high altitude” and low Earth orbit (LEO) is of interest to the military for several reasons. Today, this is mostly because they believe that inflatable airships operating there can fulfill many of the missions now assigned to satellites or to high-altitude aircraft, such as the U-2 or the Global Hawk UAV. These could be the key to affordable persistent intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR).

Work on a new US generation of lighter-than-air vehicles has been going on for many years under many guises. Since the US Navy got out of the blimp business in the late 1950s, the military use of these craft has been limited to things like aerostats that can raise antennas or sensor packages to about 150 to 1500 meters or maybe a bit more. In Iraq these are being used to provide surveillance for US bases. They are also commonly used in border protection and for costal radars.

Above 30,000 meters we start to get into the realm of suborbital vehicles. Is there a real military use for things like Burt Rutan’s SpaceShipOne?

In near space such craft would perform radar and multispectral imaging missions, as communications nodes (sort of a mini-Milstar), and, in the future, could even relay laser beams from a ground-based source against a wide assortment of targets. This type of airship would be very large and would carry an equally large payload. Based at between 20,000 and 21,500 meters they would be within range of any number of surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), not to mention enemy fighters, such as the MiG-25.

The Air Force is also working on smaller versions of these craft that could operate at even higher altitudes, perhaps more than 30,000 meters. If built, these would carry a much smaller payload of about 45 kilograms. The weight limitation would seem to rule out the use of large sensors or anything other than a simple transponder package, but they could be used to test certain satellite components in a space-like environment.

Above 30,000 meters we start to get into the realm of suborbital vehicles. Is there a real military use for things like Burt Rutan’s SpaceShipOne or some of the DC-X type vehicles that are being worked on by companies like TGV Rockets of Norman, Oklahoma? For ISR purposes, the answer is probably yes, as these suborbital rockets will be able to carry significant sized sensors and will be able to get up and then get down with their imaging data preserved onboard or, if necessary, transmitted to a ground station as with a UAV or satellite.

Suborbital rocket vehicles have also been proposed as launch systems for testing target warheads and decoys for missile defense. If they are able to fulfill their low-cost promise, they could make it much easier to carry out large-scale missile defense exercises without having to fire off expensive target rockets.

A future enemy might find it impossible to launch satellites or to fly traditional reconnaissance missions, but they might be able to launch a suborbital rocket that could go up, take pictures and return to earth within a few minutes.

The same mechanisms that a suborbital rocket would use to launch warhead targets could also be used to launch real weapons. This raises the possibility of combat in near space between rival rocket planes. This may sound like science fiction but any craft used to carry out military information gathering is a legitimate target and may legitimately defend itself. From there it’s a short step toward being able to fire weapons at targets on the ground.

The process may be similar to what happened in the early years of World War One when the primitive flying machines of the period went from reconnaissance to counter-reconnaissance (i.e. trying to shoot down the planes that were reporting troop movements and similar activities) to bombing and ground attack.

Large airships may be perfect for long-dwell surveillance in relatively benign environments such as over Iraq, but against an enemy that was able to use SAMs and fighters with even a small degree of effectiveness, such systems would be nice big juicy targets. Defending them using on-board countermeasures, stealth, or even with fighter escorts would be possible but would be a difficult and expensive job. One hopes that the Air Force will do some in-depth cost-benefit analyses before committing to building a large number of such flying beasts.

Near Space is going to be an ever more important area of military operations. For missile defense, for example, it is where both boost phase and most terminal phase intercepts will take place. It is also where a future struggle for ISR supremacy might also occur. A future enemy might find it impossible to launch satellites or to fly traditional reconnaissance missions against deployed US forces, but they might be able to launch a suborbital rocket that could go up, take pictures and return to earth within a few minutes. With the weapons currently in the DoD’s arsenal, the US could neither intercept nor interfere. This could be a problem.


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