News: US Army Alaska hosts equipment test in JBER skies
Story by Staff Sgt. Matthew Winstead
JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska - Soldiers, civilian leaders and commanders from U.S. Army Alaska and U.S. Army Pacific Command took part in a communications equipment demonstration from Space Data Corporation, July 17, at Pershing Field on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson.
The Combat SkySat UHF Retrans System is a specially designed balloon that carries a wireless transmitter into the stratosphere (65,000 to 100,000 feet) for the purpose of meeting domestic and overseas mission needs, according to information provided by Allen Kirkham a Military Space Analyst with the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Battle Lab.
"This system solves the problems faced by troops on the ground where mission requirements place them in situations where distances exceed terrestrial line-of-sight and where satellite and airborne communications aren't available," Kirkham said.
SkySat is derived from technology that started back in 2007.
It was then a military variant of the Space Data's SkySite technology and the SkySat FM Repeater first employed by the U.S. Air Force. Since then, it has been used in all branches of service and continues to find ways to be applied in areas where rugged, mountainous terrain hampers communications.
Essentially working as a powerful communications relay, the SkySat system is compatible with most currently existing communications technology and is designed so that it can be deployed and not recovered if need be thus, reducing the risk to soldiers by not requiring them to expend time and resources in dangerous recovery operations.
"This system is designed like a fire-and-forget weapon," Kirkham said. "You can deploy it and not have to worry about recovering it later, because none of the relay components are sensitive items and it can be [remotely] set to wipe the memory on the card clean making it useless to a potential enemy who stumbles on it in country."
In addition to being less of a liability in the event of capture, the SkySat system is also extremely difficult for an enemy to take down once deployed. With its primary lift provided in the form of a 10- to 12-foot latex balloon filled with hydrogen that quickly carries the system to an operational altitude of about 85,000 feet. This altitude is well beyond the range of the most common form of small arms fire in Afghanistan.
The Soviet AK-47 has a maximum effective rated range of 400 meters (roughly 1,312 feet) with an overall lethality topping out at about 1,000 meters (roughly 3,281 feet) before the round loses critical momentum and falls faster than it flies. So unless the balloon is shot during the first few critical seconds of the deployment of the system there is little chance of the equipment being taken down by enemy forces, according to Kirkham.
"This system produces no heat signature and it has zero cross section on radar. Not to mention that as little as these systems cost [$11,000 per unit] no one is going to waste a million-dollar missile to try and shoot it down, especially when there's a better chance they'll miss it anyway." Kirkham said.
The SkySat system also features an accurate tracking system and altitude control devices employing proprietary vent and ballast technology. This allows the operators some degree of control over the maneuverability of the balloon by using naturally occurring air currents at different altitudes. This is especially useful in the event they decide to recover the SkySat.
"We've managed to get this to land within one mile of a convenient highway during training missions before," Kirkham said.
Using a SkySat system in combat can provide an otherwise dead area of transmission coverage with just over a 400-mile diameter area of radio communication coverage in as little as 30 minutes with an average battery life of 8-12 hours, to include providing coverage into deep valleys and canyons, according to Kirkham.
"The combat benefits of something like that are pretty clear," said Kirkham.
Information was also provided on a similar SkySat system, the SkySat Tethered Repeater System, which is essentially the same as the un-tethered SkySat but with longer battery life, shorter range, and anchored to one fixed location with a combination of Kevlar fabric and parachute cord for quicker redeployments to exchange batteries.
The tethered system can stay aloft and functional for 24 hours at a maximum altitude of 1,000 feet and provides an area of coverage about 30 miles in diameter. Both versions of the SkySat require only minimal logistics support and employ commercial off-the-shelf-technology, according to information provided by Kirkham.
The SkySat system's control platform, can be based in a small tent on a laptop or mounted into a vehicle, the ability to operators to change parameters and enable/disable retrans operations during flight.
Currently, the SkySat systems are being considered for further applications in the Army and demonstrations like the one conducted at JBER will further showcase its capabilities and benefits to troops on the ground.