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By Scott Gourley

U.S. Air Force Space Command planners, located at Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado, are exploring the possible use of high altitude balloons to enhance the communication ability of warfighters on the ground. The current program focus is exploring the expanded communications capabilities of free-floating balloons carrying commercial off-the-shelf two-way radios.

A milestone proof of concept demonstration of the communications program, called “Combat SkySat,” is scheduled to take place on 16 March 2005 in Chandler, Arizona.

As currently planned, the demonstration will utilize payloads and “near-space” operations technology developed by Space Data Corporation and AN/PRC-148 Multiband Inter/Intra Team Radios (MBITR) manufactured by Thales Communications, Inc.

Air Force Space Command representatives note “near-space” involves the area between 65,000 and 325,000 feet above sea level, adding that this area “is a no-man’s land between aircraft and orbiting satellites. This region is not currently used for military applications. Hosting military systems in this region would complement satellite and aircraft capabilities, providing a tailorable and affordable capability to tactical and theater forces.”

The “Combat SkySat” architecture will demonstrate beyond line-of-sight communication capability to support Air Force tactical air control parties (TACP). TACP operators work closely with the Army to coordinate close air support during ground operations. The demonstration is being sponsored by the Space Battlelab, which has teamed with the 13th Air Support Operations Squadron, based at Fort Carson, Colorado.

A part of Air Force Space Command’s Space Warfare Center, the mission of the Space Battlelab is “to transform space capabilities into solutions for today’s warfighting problems. Through networking with industry, academia, and service laboratories, SB leverages leading edge space technology to enhance Air Force core competencies.”

The planned demonstration, which will be held at the Space Data Corporation in Chandler, will include a launch of a “Combat SkySat” platform, observation of communications between ground units, and observation of communications with pilots flying a demonstration bombing run.

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