Tuesday, December 14, 2004

 

The Near-Space Opportunity. . . And Challenge.

From a piece off CNN:

WASHINGTON, Dec 14 (Reuters) - Top U.S. Air Force officials are working on a strategy to put surveillance aircraft in "near space," the no man's land above 65,000 feet but below an outer space orbit, Air Force chief of staff Gen. John Jumper said on Tuesday.

Jumper said he would meet next Tuesday with the head of the Air Force Space Command, Gen. Lance Lord, to map out plans to get lighter-than-air vehicles into that region above the earth, where they could play a vital role in surveillance over trouble spots like Iraq.
You're going to be hearing a lot more of this terminology in the coming years; "near space" is the next big thing. Of course, the aerostat/blimp/dirigible afficianados out there could argue that this has been the "next big thing" for an awful long time now, and they'd be right.

The difference today is that you have requirements that can't really be satisfied by traditional assets. Even more importantly, you have a four-star Air Force general who thinks this is a really good idea, which is the first step to getting these efforts funded.

It's like they say: no bucks, no Buck Rogers.

Persistent ISR is a grand dream, but it's not something we have today. What we do have are lots of air and spaceborne platforms providing intelligence on either a temporary basis, or often in the wrong spots at the wrong times.

Persistent ISR is great for establishing trending data, like searching for patterns of movement (see my previous posting on Space Based Radar for more info), but it's one of those areas where quantity achieves a quality all its own.

For example, if you can only look under a rock three times a day, you have to plan ahead on what you're going to look for. However, if you're constantly looking under the rock, the planning part goes out the window, and you can begin to notice things you never had the time nor resources to look for when limited to three looks under the rock. Persistence gives our military and national intelligence forces an ability to achieve a situation awareness never dreamed of in the days of the U-2 and CORONA.

The Reuters piece is incomplete, however, as it skips over one of the biggest, if not the biggest, potential mission for near-space assets: communications.

Satellite communications may be the backbone of our military communications infrastructure, but it's Transformational Communications, an architecture which relies on high-data-rate radio frequency and laser satellite communications, and manages communications via internet protocols. However, satellites are expensive, and take a long time to develop and deploy. Providing capabilities in near-space can possibly permit a much faster delivery of these capabilities to the warfighters.

Now, near-space isn't perfect; there are some challenges.

First off, who "owns" near-space? The Air Force has determined that the near-space ISR and communications platforms envisioned are likely to employ architectures similar to traditionally space-based missions. Hence, for now near-space is "owned" by Air Force Space Command. However, near-space is not actually *space*-- these are first and foremost aircraft, platforms that take off and land, and deal with the challenges and threats faced by platforms nominally under the control of the Air Force's Air Combat Command.

This may seem like bureaucratic semantics, but it must be remembered that every Pentagon program needs a patron: a sponsor willing to fight the internal budget and requirements battles that determine whether a program succeeds or fails. Near-space needs a home, and parents willing to stick up for it.

As I see it, the risk of keeping near-space under Space Command is that near-space assets are natural predators of space-based assets. If you can do the same mission from near-space that a space-based sensor or comm platform can do, the defenders of the space program "rice bowls" may not have a leg to stand on when it comes budget time on Capitol Hill.

Now, of course, satellites have some major and unique advantages.

For one, once launched, they're up there until they shut down or come down; even a blimp has to return to earth at some point. Satellites also cover wide areas quickly; a blimp over Iraq is great if you're in Iraq, but a Space Based Radar satellite can orbit the whole earth-- plus look behind the mountains that blimp can't see past. Better yet, satellites can't get shot down, at least not yet; near-space assets run the risk of direct enemy engagement, or mechanical failure over enemy territory. Finally, satellites ignore territorialy borders. A near-space asset is great to augment capabilities over a country you already occupy, but you still risk an international incident if you overfly denied airspace, something satellites can ignore.

That all said, America pays an awful lot of money for military satellites, and the rockets to deliver them into orbit. They're not only expensive, they're often ridiculously complex, and systems can take years-- even decades-- to develop. And, when it comes to missions like delivering persistent ISR, the only option available is often to deploy lots of satellites to get that coverage. Lots of satellites = lots of cash in the blender.

If I'm in Congress, and I'm constantly faced with huge space program overruns and technical challenges, I may find the prospect of satisfying a number of space missions with potentially more affordable near-space assets very attractive. *Especially* if I don't believe space offers all that great an advantage to begin with, i.e., I'm not a zealot who believes I *must* have a gold-plated satellite to perform a mission a copper-plated balloon can do for a lot less, and a lot sooner.

It'll be interesting to see where this all goes.

Comments:
Maybe it is the paint thinner talking, but all this ultra-sensitive surveillance crap seems like a big waste of money. Why don't we just keep the grainy pictured old satellites and make a habit of dropping a "Commie Killer" Minuteman III on anything that looks suspicious going down on foreign soil. That'd let us rotate our ICBM inventory (missiles with the oldest expiration dates go up first), put the burden of proof on the other guy ("Yeah, well convince us it is innocuous. You have....17 minutes.") and we'd really cut down on the sort of recent embarrassments that have plagued this administration. "Where are the WMDs?!" "Nuke ate 'em."

Now, if we were building a space-based Death Star station or something, I wouldn't mind ponying up a few bucks.
 
Man Chilperic, lay off the thinner. It'll make your brain drool out of the pan.

As for the Death Star. . . shhhhh.
 
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