MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. --
CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. – Marines strained their necks as they looked up toward the sky at what could only be described as a giant balloon flying above Camp Delmar, March 29. Marines from the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit trained with a new communications system that expands the capabilities of the Marine Air Ground Task Force.
The system is called Combat SkySat and is used to retransmit information to extend the range of ultra high frequency communications.
The SkySat uses a helium balloon with a hanging antenna to relay UHF signals. Flying at an altitude between 55,000 and 85,000 feet in the Earth’s stratosphere, the balloon increases the range of communication to 600 miles in diameter.
The system is built by Space Data Corporation and is billed as a ‘float and forget’ retransmission system. The balloon has a communications payload attached to it containing a global positioning system, radios and antennas. Two separate radios, one that controls the height and one that allows communication between personnel, are the lifeline of this high-tech equipment.
The main benefit of using the SkySat is that it uses UHF line of sight instead of UHF satellite communications, which the military helicopters cannot receive. This allows Marines on the ground to speak directly with pilots during operations and exercises without having to retransmit through a middle man.
The launch control station allows the operator to ‘drive’ the balloon. Using helium or hydrogen to inflate the balloon and an internal ballast system (about five pounds of sand), the operator can make elevation adjustments as necessary. If the balloon needs to be higher, the operator can unload some of the sand to make the system lighter. If elevation needs to be lower, the operator can release some of the gas through the venting system, which drops the balloon. There are no fans to assist in directional change, that’s up to the wind currents.
“The 15th MEU is adopting the system in response to the 26th MEU’s successful use of it in Libya, Afghanistan and Pakistan,” said Capt. Michael E. Ginn, assistant communications officer, Command Element, 15th MEU.
The battery life for the system is about eight to 10 hours and the system can be launched in winds up to 45 knots, said Ginn. Depending on wind speed, the system can easily cover hundreds of miles before it dies.
“The communications Marines have launched three balloons this week,” said Ginn. “One landed at Twentynine Palms.”
Additionally, the MEU uses a tactical satellite system that requires a middleman on solid ground to deploy an antenna and relay UHF signals via satellite. Because of the unit’s expeditionary nature, the new SkySat system will match the capabilities required to communicate between all elements of the MAGTF and eliminate the need for a middleman, explained Ginn.
With the SkySat, Bullrush will be more capable than ever as it continues training for its upcoming deployment.