A Push for Near Space Solutions
Profile: U.S. Air Force Gen. John P. Jumper, U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff
N ear space systems — those that operate at altitudes of about 20,000 kilometers — have emerged over the course of the past year as a hot item of interest for U.S. Air Force space officials, starting with the service’s top man in uniform.
Gen. John Jumper, who is scheduled to retire from the service Sept. 2 , is a big proponent of using near space systems to meet some of the U.S. military’s communications and intelligence needs on the battlefield at a far lower cost than most of the satellites built today.
Near space systems generally are envisioned as lighter-than-air vehicles that operate at around 20,000 kilometers where they are able to dwell over targets for longer periods of time than the aerial reconnaissance assets used today while remaining less vulnerable to enemy fire.
A few near space systems in Iraq could handle a communications or intelligence role that today might require a low Earth orbiting satellite constellation, Jumper said.
Another item on Jumper’s mind as he prepares to leave the service that he joined in 1966 is the recent separation of the position of undersecretary of the Air Force and the director of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). Having a single official handle responsibility for military and intelligence satellites has contributed to the success of operations in Iraq by boosting the quantity of classified data to U.S. forces, he said.
Jumper talked about these issues during a recent interview in his Pentagon office with Space News staff writer Jeremy Singer.
Why were you concerned about the splitting of the position of undersecretary of the Air Force and director of the National Reconnaissance Office?
We all know Don Kerr, the new NRO director, very well from his time working at the Central Intelligence Agency. He has done a great job helping us work this integration of classified and unclassified space.
W e have to make sure that the uniformed military has a strong and firm connection with the NRO. Whether it’s through an official position in the Air Force, or however the secretary of defense decides to do that. There are probably many models that we can use, but we do have to keep a strong connection between the uniformed military and the NRO.
Having the undersecretary of the Air Force also serve as NRO director provided for that connection, but that’s not the only way you can do it. I’m concerned until we are sure how this connection is going to be made.
What are some of the changes needed in the way the Pentagon approaches meeting its requirements?
We went for years and years addressing what we assumed were strictly space questions to space people, and air questions to air people, and water questions to water people, and ground questions to land people, when in fact, the solution to a land question may be in the air or in space, and the solution to the air problem may reside in a ship at sea.
A lot of people would call the piracy and banditry that goes on in the straits of Malacca in South Asia today a maritime problem, because it is pirates using fast boats to board ships and do unlawful activity. So you would tend to draft all your solutions in terms of sea-based forces, when in fact, if you put together a combination of sea-based forces with unmanned aerial vehicles and perhaps space vehicles, and you create a common operating picture used by all the countries involved, then you have a results-based focus that includes whatever assets can contribute.
Are you encouraging folks developing next generation platforms to look at near space?
If we had gone about asking the question about near space a long time ago, we might have evolved a completely different solution to the Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) missile warning satellites and the Space Radar program that would have involved space and airborne platforms networked together that would get at the problem of spotting missile launches and detecting moving targets on the ground.
But we didn’t. We assumed those were space problems, and we assumed a space solution, and that’s the way we went about it.
The Pentagon is poised to begin another review of alternatives for the SBIRS program. Is there time to incorporate near space into the equation?
Anything you do along those lines requires an enormous development process. Quite frankly, in the near space arena, we’re still working on the vehicles themselves, just to see if they can keep themselves up in the air. So I don’t see a near-term solution to the SBIRS issue with near space. Also, it would be difficult to go back and recreate the system that does the SBIRS role today.
So the choices are limited. And we do have to press on with a replacement missile warning capability for the nation, one way or the other.
Is Space Radar early enough in its development to carve out a role for near space platforms?
With Space Radar, near space could play large. We tried to push something similar in 2002, with the idea of Space Radar integrated with the E-10 aircraft, and risk reduction on the space part of the network.
I think that still is the right way to go, and if we wanted to add near space to the initial Space Radar deployment, it could be to foster the communications over long distances to reduce the latencies in the processing time.
Would you like to explore using near space vehicles for strike missions to overcome the technical and political barriers inherent with using space-based weapons to hit targets on the ground?
Not initially. I think that the technology for that sort of stuff, as well as the policy implications, will be very difficult to overcome, especially for the sort of near space vehicles that we’re looking at now.
As you know, the higher and higher that you get, the weight fraction that it takes just to keep the vehicle itself airborne is critical. It is extremely difficult to try to put 227 to 554 kilograms as high as 20,000 kilometers on something that can stay there a couple of weeks.
I think we are going to get much more value out of a vehicle that performs some of the communications relay operations and other tasks , because we have lots of ways to deliver weapons. We certainly don’t need to do it from 20,000 kilometers.
Does the potential deployment of near space systems mean that the military will need fewer unmanned aerial vehicles like Global Hawk or Predator?
First of all, I don’t think we’re anywhere close to being able to make that determination. I don’t see a large fleet of near space assets. But I do see a very large fleet of Global Hawks and Predators. You have to think of capabilities like the streaming video that comes from a system like the Predator.
We also need to work on better taking advantage of the capabilities from current systems. We have a lot of fighter jet aircraft all over Iraq with laser designator pods, and you can also stream the video to a person on the ground with a laptop computer. The person on the ground is seeing a streaming video of their target of interest. They don’t care if it comes from a Predator or an F-15E. By the way, you can talk to an F-15E guy, who happens to have 12 bombs on board. He can help you out right away if you have a problem.
So streaming video then is the issue, not the platform.