As Air Force Space Command furthers its utilization of the high frontier it's looking for persistence that doesn't have to reside quite so far out of this world. The command is focusing on developing programs that will operate in the near space region, which is located between 65,000 and 325,000 feet.
The driving force behind the exploration of near space programs is combatant commander feedback on space capabilities. In theater, combatant commanders say space capabilities need to be more tailored and responsive to meet their needs. In response, Chief of Staff, Gen. John Jumper directed AFSPC to start looking at Joint Warfighter Space initiatives, including near space projects.
The CSAF assigned AFSPC the responsibility for executing all tactical and operational responsive space capabilities through the space and the near-space mediums.
CSAF stated that: "JWS takes the next step in transforming capabilities by operationalizing space directly to the benefit of the warfighter with an agile, responsive, commander-oriented, combat space vision focused primarily at the tactical and operational levels of war, but able to integrate with the (National Security Space) architecture."
This initiative requires space warfighters to integrate space-based capabilities in the tactical and operational levels of war in direct support of the Joint Force Commander.
The command anticipates meeting this near-term need with responsive near-space platforms operating communication and Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance payloads. Air Force Space Command will take immediate action to create warfighting capabilities that improve effects and situation awareness on today's battlefield.
"With our current space capabilities, it's not that the information isn't available; it's just that relevant Battlespace Awareness doesn't always reach our forces," said Lt. Col. Ed Herlik, an IMA with the Air Force Space Command Joint Warfighter Space division. "With near space, we believe we can provide persistence, payload and deterrence."
An in-theater example sighted by combatant commanders is that blue forces on the ground using line of sight radio communications are limited to a footprint approximately five to seven nautical miles.
One of the near space projects currently in the demonstration phase uses communication relay to extend the range of those radios out to nearly 300 nautical miles.
The capability would have a wide range of applications, such as close air support. Today, during close air support missions, the Joint Tactical Air Controller currently transmits information, from a ground radio, which may then be funneled through other aircraft before it reaches the strike aircraft.
The demonstrated near space capabilities can provide communication relay, allowing the JTAC to give the briefing to the aircraft well over the horizon, decreasing the time the aircraft would have been in range of enemy fire.
"[Near space capability] will provide dedicated communication where it's currently nonexistent," said Lt. Col. Toby Volz, Air Force Space Command chief, Joint Warfighting Space division. "We can provide communication to folks in theater to use when and where it's needed. It's directly in the hands of the warfighter."
Although near space project development has been previously unexplored by the military, civilians have been making use of it for more than a year. Commercially developed platforms have been used in Texas and Oklahoma to provide information on gas and oil sites throughout the states.
"Platform operations in near space can give space-like effects without a lot of the space disadvantages," said Lt. Col. Ed Tomme, deputy director, Air Force Tactical Exploitation of National Capabilities.
Some of those disadvantages are that low earth orbiting systems can't loiter above one spot and satellite programs are expensive and generally have a long lead time before capabilities are realized.
"Near space items in the future will be able to provide persistence for days, weeks and even months," added Colonel Tomme.
The near space projects discussed above are being developed and tested by members of the Space Warfare Center's Battlelab and Air Force TENCAP, both located at Schriever Air Force Base, Colo.
"The Space Warfare Center is uniquely suited for developing initial capabilities for near space because they can take concepts close to being ready and get them out to the warfighter quickly," said Colonel Tomme.
The command plans to continue demonstrations throughout the year. The final proof of concept demonstration flight of a free-floating, tactical communication relay is scheduled for March 16-18. Follow-on demonstrations with more sophisticated platforms and payloads will continue throughout the year.