Emerging Concerns in Near Space: Navigating Security Challenges and Strategic Implications
The Indian Air Force is responsible for protecting Indian skies at all times within its geographical boundaries, up to a height of 100 kilometres known as the Karman Line. Above 100 km, it is free space; below that, termed as sovereign space, an intrusion is regarded an act of hostility, hence no one should fly its assets there other than the country it belongs to. However, as the Chinese balloon violation revealed, it is not a hallowed zone after all. It produced a lot of controversy in the United States, raised a lot of concerns, and eventually needed an advanced aircraft to fire a $400,000 missile to shoot down an insignificantly low-cost balloon. Of course, there is no cost comparison when national security is involved. But the point is, this threat geometry does pose significant amount of risk and one may not be able to deal with a threat in this regime all the time the way it was done in the above stated case. After cheap drones, such objects in near space, above the standard atmosphere and below the Karman line, may impose an extremely adverse exchange ratio for any nation. Another concern must be that unlike drones, which can be addressed quickly, by the time such objects are detected and brought down, significant amount of intelligence would have flown out. What is it like operating in the near space and what are the concerns that such operations pose? Is it enough to develop only capability in near space or should counter capabilities be also looked at in parallel? These are some of the valid questions that must be addressed by the military powers and academia to provide a meaningful direction to the industry.
The influence zone of conventional aircraft is limited to around 20 kilometers in altitude, beyond which the rarefied atmosphere cannot generate sufficient aerodynamic forces for the aircraft to sustain normal speeds in the air. Even High Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) unmanned platforms, such as the Global Hawk and Reaper, are restricted to this altitude. It's not that space above 20 KM has never been exploited, but an aircraft operating significantly higher than 20 KM altitude must move extremely fast. Following the downing of the Gary Powers-piloted U-2 over the USSR, the U.S. built the SR-71 Blackbird, capable of flying at 85,000 feet (25.9 kilometers). However, since an aircraft at that altitude needs to travel extremely fast to generate the necessary aerodynamic forces to stay airborne, as mentioned earlier, it flew at Mach 3+, which is three times the speed of sound.
An aircraft at those speeds, such as the SR-71, is best suited for strategic ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance) operations but has very little maneuverability to undertake conventional fighter aircraft missions. Moreover, intelligence gathering through space sensors wasn’t really developed as much as it is today. An aircraft like SR-71 was extremely difficult to operate and maintain. According to reports, getting an SR-71 into the air required a significant amount of effort. Aviation historian Peter Merlin remarked, “it took a small army to prepare the aircraft”. Interestingly, no SR-71s were lost to enemy action, while 12 out of 32 were destroyed due to mishaps. In 2001, the United States cancelled the programme. To be fair to the programme, in the absence of adequate and timely space surveillance there was no choice perhaps, but may not make much sense with abundance of EO/SAR satellites, claiming almost hourly revisits, finding difficult to find enough consumers. But, if no aircraft can, or not considered viable to operate in near space, can a satellite be operated in that zone? Probably not because it is impossible to operate a satellite in this zone due to the incredible orbital speeds required to make it circle the earth below 100 kilometers altitude. Just to bring home the point, a Geo Stationary satellite placed over equator, orbits at the speed of earth’s rotation, which is approximately 463 m/s. In comparison, a satellite at 500 Km orbit almost travels at 7.5 KM/sec. Even the VLEO is planned to be above 100-150 Km, and would need almost constant thrusters to keep it in the orbit. Assuming that even if it were made possible by further technological advances, the satellite operating below 100 Km would essentially have to trespass another country's sovereign space, which is clearly not an option, unless the definition of sovereign space undergoes a change just to develop a form of technology. Obviously, this can never happen unless it was for the common good of humanity.
Near space has come into focus because steered balloons are now a reality. They do have their challenges, but definitely far less than operating an aircraft or a satellite in that space. Any platform hoisted even at about 40-45 KM altitude, with different payloads can pose serious security concern. It’s also not easy, if not impossible, to target an object at that altitude by any means other than the ASAT weapons probably. It will be prohibitively expensive to use such a weapon against a low cost threat in near space and that’s how like drones, even they would pose an extremely adverse exchange ratio for the defender. Capability is being built in near space by different players at a fairly fast pace. At the same time, focus should not be lost on how to tackle them. When drones had become a craze, the industry continued to indulge in their mass scale production without anyone paying much attention on potent anti drone capabilities. It was believed that some jammers or Lasers would be enough to stop them, which clearly has not turned into a very reliable solution. Efforts are now on to develop kinetic kill alternatives. Interestingly, an article in Defense One dated October 6, 2023 states that, “Dangling from the ceiling and laid flat on display stands, sleek drones of every shape and size were ubiquitous at last month’s DSEI arms show. Far less common were weapons to stop them”. This invariably becomes the case with every development. The capability building in near space must not lose sight of this very important aspect.
Air Marshal GS Bedi (Retd)