Air Force Shuns Near Space Missions
By Edward Herlik
Colorado Springs, CO (April 22, 2008) – A Los Angeles Times article today quoted Defense Secretary Robert Gates singling out the Air Force for adapting too slowly to battlefield realities. In a now-routine speech at the service’s war college, Gates pointed out that getting senior commanders to field the non-traditional systems needed by troops in combat overseas has been “like pulling teeth.” Gates went further to describe senior military leaders as, “stuck in old ways of doing business.”
The Secretary’s criticism specifically referenced the slow pace of fielding unmanned aerial vehicles over the battlefield. Such criticism is not new but it now comes from the most senior member of the American defense establishment. Gates continued to say, “Our services are still not moving aggressively in wartime to provide resources needed now on the battlefield.”
Near space, generally defined as the atmosphere between 20 and 100 km, was recently advocated as a solution to the unique challenges posed by the counter insurgency conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Information shortages are acutely felt in the kinds of missions most suitable for Unmanned Aerial Systems (UASs). Advocates claim that planes and blimps in near space could spend weeks, if not months, on station. In other words, UASs flying persistent missions from near space would go a long way toward meeting the immediate need.
The US Air Force’s Space Command was the primary champion of persistent flight vehicles in near space until 2006, when it transferred that responsibility to the Air Combat Command. Space leaders recently joked that Space Command follows the laws of Kepler and not the laws of Bernoulli. That’s a somewhat dismissive rocket scientist geek reference to the physics of orbits rather than the aerodynamics of flight. Air Combat Command, in turn, is now working to transfer lighter-than-air vehicles to Cyber Command, a new Air Force entity temporarily headquartered at Barksdale AFB, LA. There has been essentially no Air Force interest in high altitude airships since General John Jumper, the previous Chief of Staff, retired in September 2005. Long endurance fixed wing UAS work continues as an extension of existing unmanned vehicle developments.
Parts of the military, however, are still very much interested in near space and its potential to support troops on the ground and in the air. The Army’s Space and Missile Defense Command has long expressed interest in fielding communications relay and various sensors for troops in combat. They are also an interested observer of a high altitude airship flight scheduled for this week.
Northern Command and NORAD’s commander, General Victor Renuart, was recently quoted by Inside the Air Force as saying of high altitude airships, “They have applicability in the counter-narcotics world, they have applicability in maintaining maritime awareness, they have applicability in airborne radar, if you will, in areas that we don’t have good ground-based radar coverage to provide warning and situational awareness, both in my NORAD and my NORTHCOM hats.” General Renuart would clearly welcome such developments, but his commands are legally prevented from developing such systems. That role is reserved for the services, such as the Air Force, where near space persistence runs ‘persistently’ into powerful opposition from the satellite community.
The recent 24th annual Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, CO confirmed that the space community is essentially out of the near space business. Boeing and Lockheed-Martin, both of which operated prominent displays, did not include details on their high altitude, long endurance unmanned systems as they have in the recent past. They also did not respond to requests for more information on those systems. Other past participants, such as Sanswire, were absent completely.
Displays in the two huge Broadmoor Hotel event halls included model airships and solar powered UAVs as recently as two years ago. One small company, Sanswire, even enticed participants with a chance to pilot their airship in a simulation built around predicted flight parameters. Such displays were not evident with one exception.
In contrast to the large defense firms, small companies displayed, or expressed an interest in, near space. Space Data Corporation displayed their actual flight vehicle. That system consists of a weather balloon controlled from the ground through their proprietary valve and ballast system and able to carry multiple small payloads to 30 km. Onboard sensors and data from other balloon flights are combined to allow operators some directional control through changing altitude and, therefore, floating in favorable winds. No free-floating balloon is a persistent platform but such devices can provide persistence through replenishment. Space Data supplies systems for at least one such mission flying in a military theater today. That contract, worth up to $49 million, is the first operational military use of persistent near space capabilities. Space Data has long operated a similar commercial service to relay oil field data in Texas and Oklahoma.
|Space Data Corporation’s control assembly seen below a minimally inflated balloon|
Several smaller companies manufacturing space-qualified payloads are also paying attention to the progress of very high altitude flight vehicles. That environment is less hazardous than space and those vehicles generally operate without the flight loads and vibrations possible in conventional aircraft, so payload design is relative easy. It’s clear that a variety of payloads are much more mature than the vehicles needed to fly them.
Aerostar International of Sulfur Springs, TX was not represented at the Space Symposium but that’s understandable given preparations for a second flight of their HiSentinel near space airship. HiSentinel is a conventional, non-rigid airship designed to fly above 60,000’ for at least a week. Its innovations include very low structural weight and an internal, steerable solar array. The development team that also includes Southwest Research Institute, Raven Industries and the US Air Force Research Lab is in Alamogordo, NM at this writing attempting to extend the five-hour endurance demonstrated on Nov 8, 2005 by an earlier version of that UAS.
Other non-space agencies are also still interested in near space. DARPA recently completed significant airship fabric, structure and power developments. Having reduced the airship problem to an engineering exercise, that agency requested funds to develop a 140m long prototype that would, in full production, cost approximately $250 million US. DARPA has also announced work on a fixed wing, heavier-than-air UAS called Vulture. They hope to achieve five years on station in near space with a 1000-pound payload. Reports indicate DARPA plans to complete risk reduction during 2012 and decide on prototype development then.
This writer will soon complete a detailed persistent platform technology and market forecast report for the Homeland Security Research Corporation. Interested firms may participate in that research by contacting him at EHerlik@HSRC.biz.
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