With recent events revealing the ease at which Earth’s upper atmosphere can be used for the deployment of spy platforms over countries like the United States by its foreign adversaries, the space high above Earth has been placed under renewed scrutiny by militaries, politicians, analysts, and the media.
On January 9th, the French Air and Space Force (FASF) hosted a colloquium aiming to define the means and methods of mastering this area of vacant air space between 65,000 and 330,000 feet, despite the fact that most air traffic currently operates between 33,000 and 42,000 feet.
Organized by the Centre for Strategic Aerospace Studies (CESA) and presented by reporter Nicolas Rossignol, the colloquium, titled “From sky to space: new operational challenges at very high altitudes,” gathered military officials and private contractors to assess what many view as the next technological battlefield.
As explained by Xavier Pasco, director of the Foundation for Strategic Research (FRS), higher airspace is a territory now being explored by a variety of new kinds of devices, including space drones, suborbital craft, high-altitude aerospace platforms, hypersonic gliders, and pseudo-satellites.
Located between the two well-known mediums of air and space, this low-density aerial layer offers new challenges, but also several opportunities.
While currently still unregulated, there is a necessity to coordinate nations due to the sheer amount of objects that are now traversing this planetary-wide layer of the outer atmosphere; platforms are now launched in constellations consisting of as few as ten, to several hundred specific objects to create hardware networks, which increase everything from spycraft and data collection capabilities, to aerial clutter.
The idea of utilizing Earth’s higher airspace is not new. In the modern history of aviation, beginning at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in December 1903 with the earliest successful flights by Wilbur and Orville Wright, and thereafter on March 18, 1906, with the first flight of a self-propelled combustion plane by Traian Vuia, the concept of reaching the top layers of the atmosphere to benefit from the low-density airspace appeared as soon as the late 1930s, as envisioned by Eugen Sänger and Irene Bredt with their concept for the Silbervogel, or “Silver Bird.” Proposed for use as a long-range bomber by the Third Reich, its lifting body design opened the door to what would eventually become the Space Shuttle and is still being used today for aircraft like the Dream Chaser and Dassault’s Space Rider.
However, the two main technologies previously used to operate within this airspace have fatal flaws. Rocket planes, like the Bell X-1 and North American’s X-15, trade maneuverability and range for extreme speeds of up to Mach 6.7 (5,140 mph, capable of traveling between New York and Los Angeles in under 30 minutes). Conversely, NASA’s space capsule can reach Mach 32 on reentry (24,816 mph, or New York to Los Angeles in under 6 minutes), although in doing so would suffer a 20g deceleration and complete lack of maneuverability.
Many different technologies now compete to conquer this layer of the atmosphere. Among the most well known varieties are hypersonic gliders, planes, missiles, and drones that attempt to use breakthrough technologies with roots as far back as the 1960s and 1970s, like the Lockheed Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM), the supersonic Lockheed SR 71 Black Bird and Aerospatiale/BAC Concorde.
At the recent French Air and Space Force event, Agnès D’Heilly, a Colonel in the French Air and Space Force civilian reserve and Ariane Group’s Public Affairs Director, introduced the latest developments in the industry. First was the M-51 ballistic missile, capable of carrying up to 10 independent nuclear warheads by itself, based on the Ariane 5 booster and able to reach the speed of Mach 25 (19 000 mph). Also featured was the Experimental Maneuvering Vehicle (V-MAX), a hypersonic glider able to reach Mach 5.7 (4 130 mph) propelled by a rocket. The presentation concluded by focusing on the urgency to develop international agreements in order to avoid air safety and sovereignty issues.
At the opposite end of the range of higher airspace operations (HAO) aircraft are high-altitude balloons. In 1931 Swiss physicist Auguste Piccard achieved the first manned atmospheric balloon flight using a spherical aluminum cabin attached to a hydrogen balloon. Later used by the US military, one of the most well-known spy platforms was named “Project Mogul,” which operated from 1947 to 1949. Mogul involved a network of microphone-equipped high-altitude balloons used to detect shockwaves from nuclear explosions.
This trend in balloon-based aerial operations never ended, as was shown by Nicolas Multan, CEO of Hemeria, who presenting the company’s range of high-altitude balloons designed to operate for the military with the Directorate-General for Armaments (DGA) and for scientific operations with the National Centre for Space Studies (CNES). He also introduced the BallMan, an aircraft capable of maneuvering in the high atmosphere and hovering for months above a specific target without being carried away by winds.
Later, Stratolia’s founder Louis Hart-Davis presented his own smaller maneuvering High Airspace balloon. He explained that while satellites cannot orbit under 400 km and stay above a specific target and that even drones have their own limitations, stratospheric balloons offer a few distinct advantages that allow them to collect accurate data in ways other aircraft cannot.
During the first panel at the event, Major General Frederic Parisot stated that the main reason for the French Air and Space Force (FASF)’s involvement in higher airspace was the protection of France’s territory and population.
“What creates opportunities creates potential threats, it is about knowing what is going on above our heads, especially above the national territory,” Parisot said.
Mentioning older aircraft designs that were already able to reach 70 000 feet like the Lockheed U-2 and the Dassault Mirage 3, Parisot noted the ability of such aircraft to cross countries without requiring authorizations, on account of the sovereign airspace above any given country stopping at 66,000 feet.
Parisot defined higher airspace as both well-known by the armed forces but unregulated so far due to the lack of physical barriers. He added that the FASF’s goals for HAO were to gather knowledge, conduct surveillance and ensure its use for the benefit of national security. He referred to the creation of communication relays, spy platforms, and observatories aimed toward both ground and space, and also noted that it was crucial to reach an agreement, at least between private interests and, if possible, the military, mentioning the 1944 Chicago convention for aerial traffic and the Outer Space Treaty of 1967.
The two main threats noted by Major General Parisot in his intervention were the decreased efficiency of early warning systems due to increased speed of HAO, and the data collection opportunities of a constellation of long-duration spy platforms from a rival nation above national territory. He concluded that in the future, operations in the three domains of air, higher airspace, and space would require cooperation and coordinated strategies to prevent interdiction from rival interests.
Directly following the FASF presentation was Hervé Derrey, Executive Vice President for the Space Division at Thalès Alenia Space. One of the main private contractors for French Defense, Derry introduced the Stratobus, a new intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) HAO platform.
As long as a baseball field and able to carry a 550-pound payload for one year at an altitude of 60,000 feet, the craft will be powered by solar panels, fueling 5kw of power back to the payload. The Stratobus is designed to be capable of observing an area 600 miles in diameter, and will be able to carry long-range radar, electronic warfare antennas, or communication relays at a cheaper cost and more expendable than geostationary satellites.
Dassault’s Space Program Director Marc Valès then introduced the new generation of hypersonic space planes under the name “Space Rider,” presented as being more reliable, flexible, and reusable, and able to carry payloads and passengers alike in HAO. Space planes will be able to integrate the Eurocontrol system alongside conventional planes, satellites, and high atmospheric balloons while being much faster (up to Mach 10) and remaining steerable at those speeds; specifications of great interest to the military.
Valès said Dassault anticipated a vast increase in civilian demands once new orbital stations begin construction in the coming years, as the company’s product will be capabel of relaying energy and resources from low orbit back to Earth.
Stephane Vesval, sales and marketing Vice President at Airbus Defense and Space’s Space Systems division, spoke next, explaining how their Zephyr platform allowed them to test-bed technologies for HAO, both for open and closed airspace surveillance, by reducing its signature. A great advantage of this UAS platform for HAO is its autonomy, with capabilities that allow 64 days of continuous flight.
Representing the DGA, Jean-Baptiste Paing explained how the French DGA’s mission was to anticipate technological breakthroughs for the military, and choose the ones they should put money behind. Aware they are unable to compete with the U.S. Department of Defense in terms of budget, when it comes to HAO, the DGA chose in 2018 to favor aerostat and balloon designs, as opposed to space planes and drones, due to the necessity expressed by the FASF to have long-duration platforms able to carry large payloads. The chosen option benefits from the industrial resources already in existence in France, as well as the expertise of the CNES with high-altitude balloons. He later noted that the European Union has also been working on the same issues with the development of high altitude platform systems demonstration (EuroHAPS).
General Pascal Legai, Security Advisor to the Director General of the European Space Agency, then explained that the main reason higher airspace was unregulated was because most nations that are able of using the outer atmosphere have no interest in placing limitations on their own access to it, noting that a Space Traffic Management concept already exists in the European Union, involving:
The ability to monitor the skies with telescopes and detectors, limiting the amount of debris
Defense against cyber attacks
Thorough monitoring (orbits, electromagnetic (EM) spectrum, object lifespan, launches, space operations, and reentries)
Establishing norms and rules that are today next to non-existent.
As a research agency, ESA cannot propose norms by itself, although it can work on how to apply Space Traffic Management by creating tools with private contractors.
The European Union is currently working on establishing ground rules on HAOs. Indeed, on the one hand, some airspace principles can be transposed to higher airspace, as explained by Nathalie Le Cam, an expert with the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), which is currently working on a report on the transport aspect of HAO.
Eric Billard, head of the civil-military architecture & research unit at EUROCONTROL, explained how dialogue will be required between all actors, including the military, to ensure safety of flight in the crowded European airspace, using norms and flow management.
Speaking on behalf of the CNES, Inspector General Bernard Chemoul’s presentation conveyed how France plans to reinforce its space assets and capabilities. The significance of the state was outlined in the 1967 space treaty, where responsibility for any problem resulting from a spacecraft would be placed on the country of origin, even if launched by a private company. This also resulted in regulations enacted by the CNES to help prevent the likelihood of accidents.
The CNES also has its own Conjunction Analysis and Evaluation Service, Alerts and Recommendations (CAESAR). This, in addition to its Space Special Police and access to military detectors, including SATAM (Aircraft and munitions acquisition and tracking system) and GRAVES (Large Network Adapted to Space Surveillance) radar systems. Able to work in tandem, both systems can detect any objects between 400 km and 1 000 km. Designed by the Space Studies and Research National Office (ONERA), it was launched in 2005.
GRAVES now monitors more than 3,000 objects daily and had detected more than 30 spy satellites by 2007. The system is currently being upgraded to detect objects as small as a few inches in width.
Following the release of the 2022 Annual Report on Unidentified Aerial Phenomena by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence last month, one may wonder if such European detectors could help identify anomalous objects investigated by the All-Domain Anomaly Resolution Office (AARO). The Debrief had the opportunity to ask an ONERA representative this question one year ago. She referenced the CNES-GEIPAN UAP study efforts, with specific instruments like the all-sky camera network FRIPON, which covers the entire French territory and works alongside GRAVES. Regarding the ONERA itself.
“As far as ONERA is concerned, its research work is focused on identified aerial phenomena for defense purposes essentially,” the ONERA official said. “We have programs to develop instruments for this purpose, which could potentially pick up unidentified phenomena or detect ‘things’ moving in unexpected orbits, but that would be the end of it.”
At the January event, representing ONERA had been defense program director Franck Lefevre, who defined higher airspace as an environment of both extreme, but also very low speed. He explained that since the 1950s, the ONERA has worked on ramjet propulsion, and now employs the MBDA ASMP-A, an air-ground nuclear missile capapble of reaching Mach 3.
But in order to reach hypersonic speeds, a super ramjet is needed, requiring combustion at supersonic wind speed. Another problem of hypersonic speed is heat management behind the shockwave, which also imposes a requirment for new types of materials. Even more challenging, adding maneuverability is ongoing, as the ONERA has wind tunnels reaching Mach 12 to test aerodynamic designs.
He later added that to counter hypersonic targets, the ONERA was working on beyond-the-horizon radars, with NOSTRADAMUS being able to detect any object between 400 and 1200 miles at 360°, even stealth or extremely fast aircrafts.
Asked if France was late in the technological race happening today with hypersonic platforms, Lefebre declared that the country isn’t behind, but merely kept their progress quiet in these research areas that the country says it has investigated for decades. As to why such hypersonic technologies weren’t used earlier, Lefebre said it was because it first required several additional engineering breakthroughs.
Later in the day, Colonel Olivier Fleury joined the event remotely from French Guiana, presenting the 367 FASF Base as an example of how to secure a multi-layered environment. He explained how the CNES Guiana Space Center (GSC), where an Ariane 5 ECA launched the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), was protected. A no-fly zone the size of New York City has been secured around the site and is monitored 24/7 by a pair of radars tracking any object in an area hundreds of nautical miles in diameter around the base.
Drones are used to control the ground, and Airbus AS555 Fennec helicopters are constantly ready to conduct interceptions using FLIRs, night vision goggles, and onboard gunners under the delegated authority of the Air Defence and Air Operations Command (CDAOA). To protect launch operations of the GSC, Dassault Rafale, Boeing E3-F AWACS and anti-drone systems are deployed to reinforce the site alongside ground-to-air missiles, ground forces deployments, and naval security operations. He concluded that the increase in assets in the higher atmosphere threatening the operations of the GSC will be countered by the FASF.
CDAOA Commander General Philippe Morales explained there were three primary goals set for higher airspace. The first involves guaranteeing HAO in Pacific use; second is to identify strengths and weaknesses, opportunities and risks of an increasingly accessible HAO; and finally, the third objective is to anticipate a possible arms race in HAO due to increasing competition between the different actors in the field. Morales then added that it would require to have interdiction capacities, the opportunity of using this airspace as a base of operation from specific platforms, and as transit medium for hypersonic missiles.
“It would bother me to see that there are balloons from a competing power above our country and that they are observing,” Morales said. “There might just be some at the moment, and we don’t even realize it, I don’t know, but it would be a shame if we couldn’t do anything. So we can already imagine all the potential, so we have to do something, we can’t leave things as they are.”
“I’m going to draw a parallel with air traffic control,” Morales said. “We need to know what’s going on, so we need sensors, then we need to identify and categorize: is it normal, benevolent or malicious; and then we need to act.”
“Soon we’ll also have to think about how to intercept or neutralize,” Morales also said. “I don’t know, say there’s a stratospheric observation balloon that’s small and cheap, [to intercept it] with a missile that was made to go very far would be very expensive.”
Morales also spoke about the use of high-altitude drones and balloons, and the likelihood that such technologies, when put into broader use, will be replicated by foreign adversary nations.
“I immediately see huge possibilities of improvement with stratospheric balloons or permanent, very high altitude drones… there is really something very interesting to be done, but from the moment we start doing that, a potential enemy will do the same thing, so we must be able to counter their observation capacity,” he said.
Asked if the FASF has detectors able to spot high-altitude balloons, Space Commander General Philippe Adam explained during the event that there were means to detect objects in the lower atmosphere and in space, but that higher airspace was not well-monitored until now. He then added that all operations in space came from Earth, so monitoring ground, airspace, and higher airspace is necessary for the FASF to master space.
He concluded the last panel by stating that there were a wealth of opportunities for Defense in this territory, but that the potential for emerging threats coming not only from old rival nations, but also from new smaller groups, must be recognized.
The Air and Space Force colloquium then featured a speech by Congressman Thomas Gassiloud, chairman of the Defense and Armed Forces committee, who talked about the recent news and dialogues with allied forces on the subject. Gassiloud also addressed the necessity of protecting the country from everchanging threats, efforts that would push France to always move forward into new technological areas and offering breakthroughs to the Nation, while deploying the country’s influence to suit its policies.
Gassiloud added that higher airspace must not become “a new wild west,” nor should it be allowed to become an unregulated new airspace where high-tech corporations or state actors are able to spy on populations. He concluded by emphasizing that it was also a challenge for French industries, and that mitigating potential issues would require future outreach programs the likes of the January colloquium.
FASF Chief of Staff General Stéphane Mille concluded by stating that this colloquium was the starting block regarding France’s involvement in higher airspace, with a first report to the French Armed Forces Chief of Staff due in the coming months, and new missions that will be presented to the FASF in the months ahead.
Baptiste Friscourt is a certified visual arts instructor based in France. He is the host of the Explorer Lab Youtube Channel, which focuses on the frontiers of science.