February 17, 2023 Special Dispatch No. 10498

China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) Report In March 2018: "An Omnipotent Weapon – How Amazing Are Near-Space Vehicles? Airships Can Provide Tremendous Strategic, Tactical Advantages On The Modern Battlefield; They Are Stealthy, Can Be Used To Strike Land-Based And Space-Based Targets"

February 17, 2023
China | Special Dispatch No. 10498

On March 30, 2018, the China Military Network, an official People's Liberation Army (PLA) outlet, published a report titled "An Omnipotent Weapon – How Amazing Are Near-Space Vehicles?" [1] The article was written by a researcher named Qiang Tianlin, and it describes the strategic and tactical advantages that near-space vehicles, including airships, can provide as weapons and military communications platforms.

The report says that in October 2017, a Chinese experimental airship successfully carried a live turtle into near space, and it explains that near-space vehicles operate at altitudes between 20,000 meters (which is the flight ceiling of conventional military aircraft) and 100,000 meters (which is the minimal altitude at which spacecraft operate). It says that at this altitude, near-space vehicles enjoy consistent and smooth flight conditions and are outside of the targeting range of military aircraft and surface-to-air missile systems. It also explains that near-space vehicles are stealthy, can be deployed easily, are energy-efficient, can operate around-the-clock in all weather conditions, and can be built to operate for several years at a time. In addition, the article says that near-space vehicles can provide high-quality over-the-horizon intelligence and communication, can surveil very large areas, can carry weapons to strike both land targets and space-based targets, can jam enemy communications, and are not vulnerable to atmospheric interference that other communications platforms are affected by. The article mentions near-space vehicle platforms being developed by other countries, including France's Stratobus Autonomous Stratospheric Airship program and the United States' SR-72, X-30, and Integrated Sensor Is Structure ("ISIS") programs.

An image from the March 2018 report in the People's Liberation Army (PLA) outlet.

Following is the text of the report:

Near-Space Vehicles – The Weapons Of Air And Space Battles

In October 2017, China's independently developed "Voyager 3" near-space vehicle successfully carried a live turtle into near space, carrying out experimental tasks and testing key technologies. This is the first time in the world that an aerostat carried a live animal into near space for an extended period of time, indicating that China's near-space flight technology has reached new heights. With the rapid development of new and modern hi-tech, the information battlefield is no longer limited to land, sea, and low altitudes, and near space has become a new battlefield for modern warfare and an important link in the national security system. As an important link connecting the air and space battlefields, near-space vehicles will play a crucial role in the future integrated air-and-space joint operations, which are highly valued by more and more countries. The development and application of these tools will also have an important impact on future combat.

Near-Space Vehicles Can Control the Sky Above Them and the Land and Sea Below Them – They Are "Hanging Swords" Floating in No-Fly Zones

Generally speaking, the flight ceiling of conventional aircraft is below 20,000 meters, and spacecraft operate at an altitude of at least 100,000 meters. The space between 20,000 meters and 100,000 meters is called "near space".

Near space includes the stratosphere, the mesosphere, and part of the thermosphere. It is the transition zone between aerospace and space, an empty area that is unexplored, with the exception of the occasional rocket crossing through it.

It is precisely because of its unique environment that near space has special advantages. There are few clouds and little rain in this region, and the temperature is almost constant. Hence, it near-space vehicles enjoy smooth flights. At this altitude, near-space vehicles can also avoid most ground while being able to strike both ground targets and spacecraft. This is an ideal area for airborne military activities and it has great potential for development.

There are two different kinds of near-space vehicles: high-dynamic vehicles and low-dynamic vehicles, in accordance with flight speed. The [Rockwell] X-30, which was jointly developed by the United States Department of Defense and NASA, is a typical high-dynamic near-space vehicle with a high speed, good maneuverability, and high responsivity to commands.

Low-dynamic near-space vehicles can be used as space stations and as space experimentation platforms because of their long working time, their long stay period, and their large load capacity. It has been reported that the United States plans to build a permanent high-altitude floating platform composed of multiple airships at an altitude of 30,000 meters which will be used as a high-altitude transfer station and supply station for spaceships.

With the continuous development of new strategic weapons, the strategic value of near-space vehicles has been favored by many countries, and many Western countries have included them in the construction of information weapons and equipment system. In recent years, the United States has made continuous efforts in the field of near-space vehicle technology. In the U.S. Department of Defense's Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap 2005-2030, near-space vehicle appear in the category of unmanned aerial weapon systems. Russia, the United Kingdom, Israel and other countries have also made preliminary research achievements in this field.

Wide Coverage, Low Cost, Long Stay Times, Short Reaction Time – Near-Space Vehicles Have Many Advantages

Near-space vehicles can become the "new favorites" that countries will compete to develop. This is because they can make up for the vast gap between the operational ranges of aircrafts and satellites, and they have key advantages over traditional aircraft in carrying out strategic and tactical tasks.

Near-space vehicles are generally deployed 30,000 meters above the mission area, and their field of view is greater than that of traditional reconnaissance aircraft. In addition, the ionosphere does not interfere with their signals, and they can easily provide high-resolution surveillance of a very wide area. The United States has proposed a high-altitude surveillance and spy airship program in its "Integrated Sensor is Structure (ISIS)" program. The goal is to develop a surveillance airship that can fly at an altitude of more than 20,000 meters and carry out high-altitude reconnaissance missions in any area of military activity.

In fast-paced modern warfare, near-space vehicles can be deployed quickly and efficiently at any time, and they can be easily maneuvered in accordance with operational requirements. They also enjoy stable flight conditions, and there is only a small time delay in the transmission of data.

Another benefit of near space is that the air flow is smooth and the environment is stable. This enables most near-space vehicles to float over the mission area for a long time with the help of natural energy sources such as wind, atmospheric buoyancy, and solar energy. Energy consumption is therefore low. For instance, the Stratobus Autonomous Stratospheric Airship proposed by France would be able to carry as much as 1000 kilograms and continuously carry out surveillance missions in near space for up to five years.

How can near-space vehicles remain intact during missions that last for several years? For one, near-space vehicles are relatively smooth in shape and do not reflect a great amount of radar or infrared light, making them difficult to detect or to lock on to. In addition, modern combat aircraft and surface-to-air missile systems can barely reach near space, so they pose no threat to near-space vehicles. These factors enable them to operate safely and stably for a long time.

Reconnaissance, Surveillance, Communication Relays, Space Confrontations, Resupply Missions – Near-Space Vehicles Have Unparalleled Military Value

The emergence of near-space vehicles not only utilizes the connection between the air and space, but also provides new ideas for air defense and anti-missile combat. If equipped with weapons platforms, near-space vehicles will enable more rapid attacks on a global scale, greatly accelerating the pace of war.

With regard to information wars, since the battlefield environment changes rapidly, it is particularly necessary to monitor the situation on the battlefield in a dynamic fashion. Near-space vehicles can carry advanced radars, which can constitute a near-space monitoring platform and provide monitoring around-the-clock in all weather conditions. The best example of this is the [Lockheed Martin] SR-72 hypersonic vehicle planned by the United States, which will have intelligence, reconnaissance, surveillance, and strike missions. It is expected to achieve its first flight in 2023 and to begin service in 2030.

Attaining information superiority in future wars is becoming increasingly critical. In the complex electromagnetic environment, it is of great significance to ensure stable and safe communications to preserve the initiative in a war. At present, military communication signals are vulnerable to interference, and this has always had implications for military combat capabilities. A communication platform based on equipment carried by near-space vehicles would be able to function for an extended period of time and provide over-the-horizon communication capabilities, while simultaneously providing stronger and more secure signals than satellite navigation communications can.

In addition, near-space vehicles can play another important role: carrying out space-based countermeasures and strikes. Expanding countermeasure and jamming platforms to near-space vehicles would facilitate suppressive and deceptive jamming operations, granting a strong electronic countermeasures advantage. If a near-space vehicle is used as a weapons platform, it can strike targets anytime and anywhere in a large coverage area. For example, the [Boeing] X-37B orbital test vehicle integrates multiple functions. It can fly at supersonic speeds in the atmosphere, and it can also enter orbit, giving it tremendous advantages over other aircraft and spacecraft.


[1], March 30, 2018.

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