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.
Jumper said the Air Force was working with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, to develop a stealthy aircraft without metal that could be equipped with special sensors and remain in the air for months at a time, keeping a watchful eye on specific regions of concern.
That would help answer the increasing need for persistent surveillance, which is difficult with current satellites, which circle the earth in orbit at altitudes above 188 miles 300 kilometres.
Unlike satellites, the new breed of near-space aircraft could hover for longer periods in one area, and since they are closer to the earth, far fewer would be needed to maintain surveillance of the entire globe, Jumper said.
He said this ability could greatly improve the military ability to conduct intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions in the future.
The U.S. military already has some aerostats, or blimp-like aircraft, in use to raise antennas and provide surveillance over U.S. bases in Iraq.
But in near space, such aircraft could carry out radar and imaging missions, carry communications nodes and even potentially relay laser beams from a ground-based source against a wide variety of targets, industry sources said.
Jumper gave few details, but said one of the remaining issues was dealing with such aircraft on the ground, where they can be unwieldy.