Thales Alenia Space have signed a contract with the French defence procurement agency to carry out a concept study concerning intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance applications using a Stratobus type platform to meet French army operational needs.

Thales Alenia Space is a joint venture between Thales (67%) and Leonardo (33%).

Thales say that the aim of the contract is to study the benefits of continuous stratospheric platforms to improve and expand France’s defense capabilities.

More specifically, the contract includes studies of:

  • An operational concept study for an ISR mission including exercises simulating its use in theaters of operation.
  • A full-scale demonstrator concept, capable of flying in the stratosphere to demonstrate the in-flight performance of an ISR mission of this type.

“The aim of this contract is to assess the relevance of Stratobus type continuous stratospheric solutions to meet defense needs, and also marks a major step forward in the definition of a possible operational solution in conjunction with users” said Jean-Philippe Chessel, Director of the Stratobus product line.

“It will enable us to prepare the foundations for the development of a complete solution, including high-reliability autonomous avionics, as well as all control aspects. We are aiming to carry out a flight demonstration by the end of 2023. The Stratobus project has been supported by the French government from the outset within the scope of the Investment in the Future plan and a European regional development fund (FEDER) for the French Riviera region.”

Thales also adds that a ‘Stratobus type’ stratospheric solutions offer two main advantages:

  • It significantly increases the area monitored by a single platform, especially by eliminating terrain masking.
  • It offers an ability to linger over an area, thus improving resilience in relation to current naval, airborne, ground and space solutions.

According to the website:

“Because it is stationary, the Stratobus can offer the permanent regional coverage that moving drones and observation satellites cannot.  In addition to surveillance of borders or high-value sites such as offshore platforms, the Stratobus can carry out other missions on land or at sea, including security (the fight against terrorism, drug trafficking), environmental monitoring (forest fires, soil erosion, pollution), telecommunications (Internet, 4G/5G) and navigation (GPS local reinforcement).”

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Isn’t it a bit of an easy target though? Or am I missing something?


They are pseudo satellites, cheap and rapidly deployable regional intelligence gather assets while at 20km altitude they are out of range of all but the largest Surface to Air Missiles.

Harry Bulpit

The simple reality is we are unlikely to face a peer opponent, which our the only opponents likely to hit such a target. So in 90% of all probability its perfectly safe.


Yes makes sense. And I dont know how large they are but one presumes they would, by nature and no doubt absorbent materials they will have a low radar signature.

Bloke down the pub

Hybrid Air Vehicles offer their Airlander 10 in a similar role and they claim that the aircraft is resilient to attack because the gas inside is at a pressure only marginally higher than the atmosphere outside. The holes created by shrapnel from missiles such as the Buk 3, as seen on the downed Flight MH17 and probably the Ukraine Air flight from Tehran, would take a long time to leak enough to bring the vehicle down.


Why not just use Zephyr like the UK?

Geoffrey Roach

…because that would hurt French pride!


But whilst it was originally UK designed its now comes under Airbus, surely there would be French interest there?


Ah, I see the blimp has the ability to linger over a specific area, which I doubt the Zephyr cannot, maybe the difference the French are looking for?


I think the distinction is Zephyr is something you deploy for a particular mission (a week or two) while the airship would be something for long term recon/signals intercept gathering (months).


Zephyr and Phasa are aiming for 3 months +, with up to a year mentioned. They can also loiter over a fixed spot on the ground. They will be cheaper than an airship as well.

The only advantage that an airship has, is that it may be able to carry heavier payloads. It should be noted though that Phasa and Zephyr are at the small end of solar powered HAPs designs.


Thought the entire idea of Zephyr is its solar powered and at its altitude has total exposure to sun so could remain deployed for months? Or is it not proving to work that well?


Potentially far better payload capacity than something like Zephyr. And at 20km + altitude, it’ll only be BMD or ASAT capable missiles that threaten it. Even when targeted, if they can go up with something approaching the ease of a weather balloon then it goes some way to realising affordable persistence.


I think that’s the key; surveillance gear is heavy and power intensive- Zephyr can’t carry a lot. It would have to carry a mission-specific pack, and even then be relatively limited from what I understand. This blimp idea gives the opportunity for a far wider range of equipment being carried, potentially extending to EW I suppose?


Might something like this be useful as an AWACS platform, or is it too vulnerable?


Airships are harder targets than intuition might suggest. For one thing, the gas envelopes can be easily made transparent to radar at most frequencies. Anti-aircraft missiles aren’t designed to destroy bags of helium either, and simply punching holes in them doesn’t bring them down very quickly. Could be some potential there.

Steve R

I think it could be a viable, and relatively cheap, platform for AWACS.

Money saved from expensive jet engines and would be unmanned so no life support systems, and very low maintenance. Worth us looking into, I think.


Must be drawbacks because it just seems too good an idea to have such belated legs despite all the technological advances that will make it all the more potentially capable in the 20s.

Barry Larking

Raymond Baxter made that suggestion last century when introducing a new British built airship at (I think) Farnborough.


Hybrid Air Vehicles in the UK have already developed them for this and commercial use. Well worth a look at their web site.

Chris J

I was thinking the same thing WRT early warning for the carriers…

Andy P

I must admit, I’ve had a wee bit of a soft spot/fantasy (steady…) about Airships used in a military role for a long time. Whether that’s manned or unmanned due to advancements, their long time on station could be a huge asset and with the drone technology in use now could lead to an extremely long duration patrol for relatively small outlay.

To quote that lovely man Simon Cowell, “its a yes from me”.


Airships have been in the past used for both airborne early warning and anti-submarine warfare patrols. The airships were non-rigid and used by the US navy in the 1950’s and 60’s. The first versions had the radar mounted under the crew gondola. The last version had the radar mounted inside the envelope. To all intents and purposes the airships worked well, but were labour intensive due to the tech of the day. These airships operated below 10,000ft as the gondola was not pressurised. I can’t find a reason why the US Navy ended the program, perhaps it was due to… Read more »

Daniele Mandelli

Some talk amongst the community that monitor the “black” world that LTAV have been developed, that fly at night making little sound.