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The air and space power operates on a doctrine to act at very high altitudes

Any country can assert its sovereignty up to 12 nautical miles from its coast [au-delà, on parle de zone économique exclusive] and up to an altitude of 66,000 feet [soit un peu plus de 20 km]. Which means that an aircraft that can develop at such a height will not violate its airspace.

But, so far, few devices have such a capability, with the exception of the US U-2 “Dragon Fly” spy plane, which can fly at an altitude of 80,000 feet. In the past, the Mirage IIIE, equipped with a SEPR rocket engine, was able to withstand, as it showed in 1967, with the objectionat 67,000 feet, from one of the U-2’s that looked very close – so to speak – to the French nuclear sites.

Whatever the case, between this 20 km limit and the outer space minimum [fixée à 100 km par la Fédération aéronautique internationale et à 122 km par la NASA, l’agence spatiale américaine]Everything is permitted as long as this class is not governed by any international treaty. However, from a military point of view, being able to operate there would have many advantages, whether for intelligence, communications or even electronic warfare.

Indeed, compared to those with which satellites are equipped, sensors carried by an instrument are capable of developing in this layer of the atmosphere [dont à très haute altitude] It will show improved performance [car placés plus près de la Terre] And in terms of connections, the Link Budget will be better, and the signals stronger.

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Evidently, as regards the possibilities it offers, this “illegal” area can become a field of confrontation … inasmuch as one can, for example, imagine that a “competitor” can be tempted to deploy a stratospheric balloon over Paris. Nothing stops him…

Hence the thinking that is currently being done by the Air Force and Space [AAE]which is all the more urgent because the technological progress allowing the development of these capabilities is so rapid.

“So far, extreme altitude has been little or no exploited, but with the proliferation of airship projects, high-altitude drones, gliders or hypersonic satellites in low orbit, it is necessary to open an inversion and avoid a possible potential gap tomorrow.” Gen. Stephen Mill, Chief of Staff of the Air and Space Forces, explained [CEMAAE]This was during a symposium organized this week at the Military School.

Commander of the Armed Forces [CEMA]General Thierry Burchard, commissioned a report on the protection – but also the use – of this layer of the atmosphere. “We still have a few months to think about before we know what we want to do about it, before we endorse a strategy and put forward a doctrine… We have some time to go but we have to get on with it!”, assigned CEMAAE. This should focus on three strategic functions, namely ‘know and anticipate’, ‘protect’ and ‘intervene’.

This work is likely to be of interest to the French Navy, which has already had the opportunity to express interest in stratospheric drones. [encore appelés « pseudo-satellites »]. Such a device “flies at an altitude of 30,000 meters and can remain in the air for weeks. It proceeds very slowly, its payload is very low, but it goes at the speed of a boat: it could therefore follow a naval force, and serve me, in a rather discreet way, as a relay for communications, but Also as a point of contact. Monitoring in order to identify all the respondents, by seeing more, ”admiral Christophe Prazuk, who was his chief of staff, already explained in 2019.

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However, this AfWA-led thinking is not starting from scratch. European Union [UE] It recently launched the EuroHAPS project, funded by the European Defense Fund of €43 million [FEDef] And coordinated by Thales Alenia Space [TAS].

Three demonstrators should be developed by 2025, based on the HHAA blimp [Hybrid High Altitude Airship] From the Italian Center for Space Research [CIRA]AsBass ball from the German ESG group [Elektroniksystem-und Logistik-GmbH] and the TAS Stratobus, which has also been supported since 2016 by the General Directorate of Armaments [DGA].

Other projects are in the works… like Airbus’ stratospheric drone, which failed to break a record last summer, and remained in flight for 64 days, at altitudes between 60,000 and 70,000 feet, as part of the US Army’s Forward Command experiment.

In France, Hemeria developed dwelling, a manoeuvrable stratospheric balloon, is supposed to allow “prolonged overflights over a significant area”. Dassault Aviation has projects in the pipeline called “Smart Astrée” and based on the “Space Rider” spaceplane, the operational version of the IXV demonstrator. [Intermediate eXperimental Vehicle]that flew in 2015.