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Combat Balloon To Improve Communications

America has been using unmanned balloons since the Civil war.
by 1st Lt. Elizabeth Kreft
Nellis NV (AFPN) Apr 26, 2006
Warfighters who depend on ground communications for mission success will soon have improved technology, thanks to a system currently under examination here at the 2006 Joint Expeditionary Force Experiment.

Combat Skysat uses balloons to take advantage of untapped airspace and improve line-of-site ground communications.

"The former Air Force chief of staff, General (John P.) Jumper, wanted to explore the ‘near space' realm," said Maj. Shawn Bratton, 111th Space Operations Squadron detachment commander. "Between where the satellites live and where the planes fly is a chunk of space where nothing is operating."

Skysat is a radio repeater platform launched into near-space. It is attached to what can be compared to a weather balloon and can transmit information hundreds of miles farther than traditional radios. Cruising altitude is between 65,000 and 95,000 feet.

"It simply changes the line of sight," Major Bratton said. "Special operators or any military member who either goes on convoy operations or works in an urban environment can benefit from it."

Hilly terrain or thick walls in an urban environment can weaken radio transmissions, but if the signal is bounced off an aerial platform, it not only allows for clearer transmissions, it extends communication range.

"The standard ground radio range is roughly 5 to 10 miles, but with Combat Skysat, warfighters can exchange information over more than 600 miles," Major Bratton said.

In the past, satellites were used to provide the long-range relay ability for ground communiqué, but the lines were often clogged with high-priority information and were too slow for the fast-paced ground environment.

"The satellite bandwidths are always heavily tasked, so Skysat provides a clear channel just for ground communication," Major Bratton said.

The balloon takes about 20 minutes to launch, but can stay in the air an average of 12 hours per flight. It is remotely flown from the launch site through ballast and vent controls, much like those on a hot-air balloon.

Depending on the hostility of the environment, the balloon either can be retrieved for future use or left behind.

"It was created to be disposable," Major Bratton said. "Since it's basically just a bent pipe repeater the size of a coffeemaker the entire platform is relatively low-priced."

With the cost of commercial geosynchronous satellites averaging more than $300 million a pop, the $6,000 skysat makes "low-priced" seem like a slight understatement.

"Yes, it is definitely cost-effective," the major said.

The cost may be low, but the capabilities Skysat provides to the warfighter are extremely valuable.

"Communication is imperative to a special operations team," said 1st Lt. Rodger Jennrich, special tactics officer with Air Force Special Operations Command. Lieutenant Jennrich is one member of the JEFX Combat Skysat examination team, and he says what he's seen so far is an outstanding improvement.

"Skysat will offer operators a variety to their communications package, which will allow us to get information back faster," Lieutenant Jennrich said.

Additionally, ground operators won't have to carry two antennas to achieve long-range contact.

"Instead of having to switch out between the satellite antenna and the UHF antenna, we'll be able to just use the one, which obviously makes life easier," Lieutenant Jennrich said. "We shoot, move and communicate, so this new tool will give our people another way to get information where it needs to go."

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