An incident involving a Chinese spy balloon shot down by an F-22A Raptor over the United States has brought attention to the growing tensions in the Upper Atmosphere (UA), a region located between 18 and 100 kilometers in height. Navigating the legalities of this space proves challenging due to the difficulty in applying international airspace laws and the 1967 Outer Space Treaty at these altitudes.
Spying and Conflicts in the Upper Atmosphere
The UA has seen a rise in espionage and conflict, fueled by the proliferation of hypersonic technologies and the increased presence of major powers. There has been a noticeable uptick in the use of stratospheric balloons and airships for observing, listening, relaying communications, and formulating positions.
Preparing for Challenges in the Upper Atmosphere
The Military Planning Law (MPL) for 2024-30 is set to see updates in space defense strategy (SDS) to tackle the challenges posed by the UA. General Stéphane Mille is expected to present a UA-focused strategy in 2023, centered around knowledge, understanding, anticipation, protection, and intervention.
France’s Readiness to Operate in the UA
The Air and Space Army (ASA) has a notable history of operating within the lower limits of the UA, as demonstrated by the interception of an American U-2 in 1967 by a Mirage IIIE. General Mille stresses that France, like the U.S., already has the capacity to operate in the UA – a claim supported by the recent incident with the Chinese spy balloon.
Comparing High-Altitude Capabilities
Advocating for Further Investment in the UA
General Mille insists on the need for the ASA to further invest in the UA, which combines the benefits of both traditional airspace and outer space. This involves building a continuity stretching from the ground to the geostationary orbit. Reactive launchers are suggested as a mean to reach low orbits or send objects into the UA. The UA offers a significant advantage in terms of discretion, as it is less monitored than the atmosphere below 20 kilometers in altitude.