Mysterious High-Altitude Airspace Closure Appears Alongside Nellis Range Complex

A somewhat bizarre airspace restriction will go into place above one of the busiest flight corridors in the western United States on Thursday, August 12th, from 11 pm to 3 am Pacific time. The box-like altitude reservation (ALTRV), a high-altitude chunk of airspace from 45,000 to 60,000 feet, sits nestled between military operating areas (MOAs) that are part of the R-2508 range complex that surrounds Edwards AFB and Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake to the west and the Nevada Test and Training Range (NTTR) to the east. This box of sky sits above an alley-like corridor that streams of airliners travel through coming and going from Las Vegas and other major population centers in America’s Southwest. 

The airspace restriction was first noticed by our friend @thenewarea51, who keeps a close eye on radio communications and aircraft movements. The altitudes involved are curious as even the lower end of the block can only be accessed by a limited number of aircraft—mainly high-end business jets, fighters, and RQ-4 and U-2 high-altitude surveillance aircraft. Normal airliner traffic passing through this area would usually be under 45,000 feet almost by default. 

It’s not like we haven’t seen strange airspace restrictions go up in this area of the U.S. before. Maybe most interesting are the high-altitude corridors set aside for something transitioning between the NTTR and the Pacific, which have come and gone. These were indicative of a secretive high-altitude drone or other test aircraft accessing the expanses of the Pacific for operational use or the SoCal range complex for testing. But those are clearly about going somewhere, this one, at least at first glance, is more like a holding box sandwiched between two of the most highly prized military training areas in the United States. Although, because of this, it could be used as a far shorter ‘bridge’ itself. In fact, it connects the R-2508 complex and the NTTR at their closest points. 

A very low-res image posted by Edwards AFB in the past shows the proximity of the R-2508 complex (lower left cluster) and the NTTR (middle right cluster). The ALTRV does seem to connect the two together at their closest point., USAF

So there is always the possibility that this temporary airspace reservation could act as a small bridge between the MOAs around China Lake and the NTTR, supporting the movement of aircraft flying from one base, such as NAWS China Lake or Edwards AFB, into the NTTR and vice-versa. It would seem odd to do such a thing for normal manned combat aircraft, though. So this could be especially useful for transiting unmanned systems or other clandestine aircraft between the two range complexes. It’s worth noting that the NTTR houses Area 51 and Tonopah Test Range Airport, among other special aviation testing locales.

We have heard in the past that similar boxes of airspace in that same area have been set up for Red Flag exercise operations. Supposedly, aggressors would use them to hold before infiltrating towards the ‘blue team’ from a unique vector. This is likely something of a ‘wild card’ training tactic that helps challenge players to expect the unexpected. Yet from what we know, there isn’t a Red Flag ongoing at this time, with the last one just wrapping up on August 6th. That doesn’t mean the ranges won’t be used for very high-end training and testing events, and those evolutions could include similar surprise aggressor tactics. Even the Air Force’s most cutting-edge integrated testing events, such as Black and Orange Flags, have been combined on some occasions and use large force employment (LFE) wargame-like scenarios to maximize realism as new systems and tactics are pressed to their limit. You can read all about that in these past features of ours

Finally, it could also be an ideal spot for a high-altitude platform to orbit while linking aircraft flying in each range complex together via a communications gateway or supporting those activities with onboard surveillance systems.  

So, we really have no idea what the restriction will be used for in the witching hour on Thursday night, but whatever it is should be comfortable cruising above 45,000 feet. 

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Tyler Rogoway


Tyler’s passion is the study of military technology, strategy, and foreign policy and he has fostered a dominant voice on those topics in the defense media space. He was the creator of the hugely popular defense site Foxtrot Alpha before developing The War Zone.