Toward Supremacy in Space

Jan. 1, 2005

During the Army’s dash toward Baghdad in March 2003, lead elements of the 3rd Infantry Division ran into a sudden and serious problem. Soldiers lost contact with the overhead Milstar communications satellite network, which wiped out their secure link to trailing support elements.

No longer able to send targeting data to their fire support units, the 3rd ID was momentarily stalled and isolated.

A call for help went out to Schriever AFB, Colo. Soon, airmen of the 4th Space Operations Squadron went to work finding and fixing the problem.

According to Capt. Ryan Stalnaker, the 4th SOPS chief of plans, tactics, and requirements, someone had shifted the Milstar “spot” (one of six spot-beam user antennas) away from the 3rd ID’s lead elements toward another area. Technicians began asking questions. Where was that spot

The squadron consulted a system showing exactly where Milstar spots are on Earth. They confirmed that the 3rd ID’s spot was in the wrong place. Specialists also quickly determined that it had not been diverted to a higher-priority mission. In this case, another Army unit had inadvertently snatched the Milstar spot that was supposed to be over the 3rd ID.

With the problem identified, the Milstar spot was moved back, and the problem was solved. The 3rd ID was able to resume its coordinated attack against the Iraqi forces.

Elapsed time: some 15 minutes from the time 4th SOPS got the call.

“The victorious outcome of this engagement, along with numerous other battles in Operation Iraqi Freedom, would not have been certain without dominant US military space power,” said Col. James C. Hutto Jr., head of force development and readiness for Air Force Space Command.

The Goal: Space Superiority

Examples such as this one show that, in combat, space capabilities can be a matter of life and death, say Space Command officials. US control of space is “not a birthright or a destiny,” warned Gen. Lance W. Lord, AFSPC commander. For that reason, the command is moving to secure US space capabilities for the future.

The concept of space superiority “needs to roll off the tongue,” like “air superiority,” Lord said. The war for control of space has “already started,” he said, and the United States can no longer assume that space will be a benign operating environment.

Space power came to the aid of the 3rd ID on many other occasions. Lt. Gen. Daniel P. Leaf, AFSPC vice commander, cited a second example. Charlie Troop, part of the 3rd Squadron of the Army’s 7th Cavalry, was a lead element in the advance toward Baghdad, from south of Najaf, in March 2003.

“When the weather turned bad, [Charlie Troop] was, in essence, surrounded, at night, in a dust storm,” Leaf said. At the time, the 3/7 Cavalry had “a real big problem on the west.” It was battling 20 Iraqi T-72 tanks, other enemy armor and vehicles, and a couple of hundred or so Iraqi soldiers.

The US and Iraqi forces were so close that SSgt. Mike Shropshire, an Air Force tactical air controller deployed with the unit, later told Leaf, “Iraqis were being killed by [rocket propelled grenades] ricocheting off US armor, and American troops were dismounting and grabbing Iraqi AK-47s” to fire back.

At the time, Leaf was listening to the battle unfold, by radio, at the forward command center. The general was serving as US Central Command’s air component coordinator at Camp Doha, Kuwait.

Shropshire was able to reach a B-1B bomber crew and call in Joint Direct Attack Munitions, Leaf said. The B-1 dropped seven 2,000-pound satellite guided JDAMs on the enemy forces.

“Remember how close this combat is,” Leaf said. “I’ve been a forward air controller, … and the idea that you would drop a 2,000-pound bomb, through the weather, at night, in a dust storm, in contact that close, is mind-boggling.”

Charlie Troop was fighting off Iraqis on three sides, but the attack on the enemy forces to the west “in essence destroyed them in detail.” The impact of the JDAMs defeated an enemy “that had us in a really terrible situation,” Leaf said. “What would ordinarily be a tactical defeat” turned into a rout of the attacking enemy.

In that engagement, Charlie Troop lost a Bradley fighting vehicle and an Abrams tank, but suffered zero deaths and zero wounded, Leaf said.

In his view, said Leaf, “that was the beginning of the end of the Iraqi Army.” He added, “They had as much advantage as they were going to get,” during the US drive to Baghdad, but lost it “due to close coordination between land- and air-force elements and the availability of space capabilities.”

Space is just as integrated into modern combat as bullets are, said Leaf, adding that he looks forward to the day when space is not thought of as something distinct or divorced from “regular” combat power.

To that end, AFSPC is working hard to change the mind-set of both warfighters and the space community. For starters, even though the Defense Department has made enormous strides in integrating space capabilities since the 1991 Persian Gulf War, there is still much room for improvement.

Right From the Start

According to Lord, combat planners must “think about space from the beginning” and not bring it on as an afterthought.

The end state, said Brig. Gen. Richard E. Webber, commander of 21st Space Wing at Peterson AFB, Colo., must be for planners to bring space to the fight, rather than integrate it into the fight.

“If you come up with a plan and wrap space onto it, [that is] not the way to go,” he said. The change requires a “huge evolution in thinking.”

Webber said he has “seen it both ways.” Successful planning during OIF included the massive C-17 airdrop into northern Iraq, used to open up the second front during the war. For that mission, Webber (the senior space officer in the combined air operations center) helped ensure that GPS requirements, satellite communications needs, and other space support efforts were all brought into the war plan at the outset.

Placing an official “senior space officer” in the CAOC is a recent phenomenon. Webber was the first, serving as space and information warfare coordinator for Gen. Tommy R. Franks, then head of US Central Command, during the first six months of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.

Since that time, the position has evolved but has become a permanent fixture, typically staffed by a senior colonel.

Brig. Gen. Larry D. James, now vice commander of Space and Missile Systems Center at Los Angeles AFB, Calif., held the job during the major combat phase of OIF, when several issues required quick resolution. During his time at the CAOC, James told Air Force Magazine, space officers planned GPS accuracy improvements and worked to mitigate Iraq’s attempts to jam the GPS signal.

Space officers also had to improve Defense Support Program satellite surveillance. Initially, coalition forces lacked the desired level of missile-launch awareness because there were DSP “connectivity” problems to resolve, he said.

Today, the established presence of a senior space officer in the theater eases the mission planning process, said Col. Teresa A.H. Djuric, commander of the 21st Operations Group at Peterson (and recently CENTCOM’s senior space officer at the CAOC).

Discussions now center on tactical issues such as how best to provide convoy security and the eternal need to optimize GPS coverage, she said.

The traditional means of temporarily improving GPS is to boost power and defer maintenance, to ensure the maximum number of satellites are online at once. But these efforts must be balanced. Deferring maintenance comes at a price, and, when GPS signal power is increased, Djuric noted, it improves the signal for all users, not just the US military.

All Phases

Space Command officials note that the systems they develop and operate now play a role in every phase of combat. Space provides communications, battlespace awareness, missile warning, positioning and tracking capabilities, and precision-weapon guidance. The prospect of taking these capabilities away is undoubtedly enticing to adversaries. Potential enemies know that the US is reliant, perhaps even dependent, upon space-based capabilities.

Space is often referred to as the “ultimate high ground,” just as the tallest hills and aircraft represented the high ground in the past. Hills and aircraft became valid military targets, and space-based capabilities are now thought to be targets as well.

In a speech last year, Lord said Space Command predicts that adversaries “will increasingly try to deny us the asymmetric advantage that space provides. … Vulnerable space systems invite attack—inviting a move to level the ‘technological playing field.’ ”

Iraq tried this during OIF, through the use of GPS jammers. The jamming attempts were unsuccessful, but brought attention to the fact that some types of crude counterspace capabilities are available on the open market.

Enemies can also use space-based capabilities to their advantage by buying access to commercial communications systems or by purchasing satellite imagery that can show bases and staging locations. The Pentagon arranged to purchase all the high-quality commercial satellite imagery of Afghanistan at the beginning of Enduring Freedom to keep valuable details out of enemy hands.

Officials say that space control efforts are increasingly important to protect US capabilities and—if necessary—to deny enemy access to space.

The Air Force’s space control efforts include three mission areas: space situational awareness (SSA), defensive counterspace (DCS), and offensive counterspace (OCS).

The Foundation

Space situational awareness serves as the foundation for everything else.

USAF’s 1st Space Control Squadron, Cheyenne Mountain AFS, Colo., has long maintained a catalog of the man-made objects in orbit. This database provides SSA and helps protect US assets from accidental damage. If a newly launched system or piece of debris threatens to collide with the objects already in orbit, satellites are moved.

Squadron commander Lt. Col. Mark Vidmar noted that, in 2004, the International Space Station and two classified DOD systems were moved for just such reasons. This was done when other objects were projected to get too close for comfort.

Of more immediate interest to warfighting commanders is the knowledge of “what’s above them,” Vidmar added.

The Air Force in October took possession of a system that used to be called the “Navy Fence,” a series of radars spread across the southern part of the lower 48 states. The Fence tracks all the space objects passing overhead and “had always been integrated with the Air Force mission,” said 1st Lt. Jenn Berger of the 21st Operations Support Squadron at Schriever.

The transfer of authority, giving the Air Force control of the Fence and 195 new military and civilian positions, was smooth.

Over the years, space essentially has been a militarily benign environment. For that reason, operators had come to assume that failures were the result of equipment malfunctions—not the deliberate and malicious acts of enemies.

Space Command is trying to break the operators of that thinking. The first response when something goes wrong, said Maj. Gen. (sel.) Daniel J. Darnell, commander of AFSPC’s Space Warfare Center, should be “think possible attack.”

The Air Force lacks a flawless means for determining if a functional breakdown is the result of an attack, but it does have procedures to try to make that determination. Databases detailing how systems operate and what the previous failures were can tell operators if a malfunction is “normal” or if it is likely malicious, Darnell said.

Space situational awareness feeds directly into defensive counterspace—the mission of protecting what’s up there.

Officials note that systems located in space tend to get the lion’s share of attention, but space-based capabilities are actually vulnerable three ways: at the satellites, through their relay links, and at the ground stations. Disrupting any of these parts of the system will have a negative effect.

A key focus today is training operators to identify and respond to possible threats to their systems. Red Teaming plays a crucial role in developing DCS tactics, and Space Command has teams in place to help educate the units.

For example, GPS jammers are available on the open market for $38,000, and satellite communications “noisemakers” can be bought for $7,500, explained Lt. Col. Todd Freece, commander of a space aggressor squadron at Schriever. GPS jamming is a “verified adversary tactic,” he said, so Red Teams use these techniques as a training tool. In that way, he said, US forces don’t see the effects of jamming for the first time in combat.

The goal is not simply to get space operators to recognize how it feels to be jammed, added Lt. Col. Guy Morley Jr., who commands a second space aggressor squadron. According to Morley, these Red Teams make the warfighter experience what it’s like to have to fight without such advanced technology.

Sometimes problems can be fixed immediately by switching frequencies or by increasing power to users, but units must also learn to fight through the interference.

Offensive Counterspace

Finally, there is the sensitive issue of offensive counterspace operations—that is, disrupting an adversary’s space capabilities to keep him from using space to his advantage. The Air Force needs to “walk a very deliberate path,” with regard to OCS, said Darnell, but officials are unequivocal about the need to follow that path.

Offensive counterspace effects can be accomplished in many ways. Darnell cited the case of a Hellfire missile, fired from a Predator UAV, which destroyed an Iraqi satellite antenna in Baghdad. That was the “first offensive counterspace mission of OIF,” he said.

The Air Force in September fielded its first dedicated OCS capability, the Counter Communications System. CounterComm uses a ground-based antenna to temporarily jam enemy satellite communications. It is a mobile, “no-kidding” tool that will be deployed—if needed—to assist theater commanders, said TSgt. James Logan of the 76th SCS at Peterson. The 76th is Space Command’s first counterspace squadron.

Many lawmakers and arms control advocates are less than excited about the prospect of weapons in space. Leaf argues that US counterspace operations have a moral component. If the US were to allow enemies the ability to disrupt space assets, this lapse would come at a cost. Battles would still be fought, he said, but they would likely last longer, be more destructive, and result in more deaths of US and enemy troops alike.

“Somebody is betting [American lives] on space capabilities right now,” Leaf said.

He went on to say that counterspace operations should be temporary, reversible, and conducted to avoid collateral damage. Once those factors have been put into the equation, he said, then “shame on us if we don’t do it.”

In the past, space operators had an unhealthy tendency to get tunnel vision with regard to their particular machine. Space Command is pushing hard to get its space professionals to think like warfighters.

“Our guys have got to get their heads up” out of their space operations centers, said Col. Kevin McLaughlin, commander of the 50th Operations Group at Schriever. Even in an era of reachback and distributed operations, it is hard for space professionals to see and appreciate the combat effects they provide.

Getting job satisfaction can be difficult, said MSgt. George P. Davlis, superintendent of the 22nd Space Operations Squadron. Operators “don’t see the results” of what they do, Pavlis said. Airmen in the space field often get more information about combat effects from CNN than they do from official sources.

Here Are the Results

Consequently, Schriever began hosting “warfighter talks” for its space operators. The base brings in the end users to speak about what they’ve done in combat and what role space capabilities have played in the mission. McLaughlin said speakers who came to Colorado to “tie it to reality” have included an Apache helicopter pilot and an Army Special Forces soldier who fought the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Operators have also become more tactical in their approach to their jobs.

McLaughlin said that, throughout OIF, GPS accuracy was routinely better than 10 feet because of the actions taken by space operators. Typically, the GPS constellation is uploaded with fresh navigation data once a day, he explained. But for OIF, the data were uploaded each time a satellite was about to go over the combat theater.

Officials also laud the space community’s creativity in devising new ways to meet warfighter requirements. The infrared DSP satellites, for example, were originally designed to detect the hot plumes of launched Soviet ICBMs, but DSP has also been used to monitor tactical missile launches since the 1991 Gulf War.

Creative thinking has “transformed the systems on board [the DSP satellites] for tactical coverage,” said Lt. Col. Scott Gilson, director of the AFSPC Commander’s Action Group. A fact sheet notes that upgrades enable the 1970s-vintage DSP spacecraft to “provide accurate, reliable data in the face of tougher requirements such as greater numbers of targets, smaller targets, and advanced countermeasures.”

Space Command is now trying to institutionalize the warrior mentality through professional development. The Space Commission, led by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld before he returned to the Pentagon, was critical of DOD’s space community in its 2001 final report.

The commission found the US military had a weak space culture that lacked focus, and that not enough personnel had experience with both space operations and acquisition.

Space Command is addressing these concerns by building a new community of space developers and operators with focused experience.

The community has intermittently been called the “space cadre,” a term that officials say will probably not stick. “Cadre” implies a temporary or initial group, and officials are adamant that a space corps or space service, separate from the Air Force, is not necessary at this time.

This community will consist primarily of space scientists, acquisition officials, and operators who will follow a tailored career path to include courses on how space fits into warfare.

Hutto, AFSPC’s force development chief, said improvements over traditional space career paths include an operational exchange program that will move officials between operational and acquisition assignments, giving them a broad understanding of the entire command’s mission.

The increasing space presence in operations centers and at unified commands also pays dividends, officials say, as it teaches space operators valuable tactical lessons that are useful when brought back to traditional space assignments. The payoff, already large, is sure to grow in the years just ahead.

The Bandwidth Burden

As a force supplier to US Strategic Command and regional combatant commanders worldwide, Air Force Space Command must be responsive to warfighting needs. The driving force behind many AFSPC acquisitions, said Maj. Gen. Roosevelt Mercer Jr., is the need to provide greater persistence over the battlefield.

Mercer, Space Command’s director of plans and programs, said persistence will come from a variety of future assets, such as Space Based Radar, for unblinking battlespace awareness, and the Transformational Satellite (TSAT) communications system, for sustainable connectivity.

There is a glaring need for more space-supplied bandwidth. Unmanned systems are a tremendous combat asset, officials say, but they are also bandwidth hogs.

Predator and Global Hawk UAVs, for starters, are controlled and monitored through already taxed communications systems. Beyond command and control, “even more bandwidth is required” to send the radar data and digital streaming video from these systems to the final users, noted Lt. Col. Scott Gilson, director of the AFSPC Commander’s Action Group.

“We have got to have an on-orbit communications infrastructure to handle this growing demand,” he said, because the UAVs continue to proliferate.

Systems such as TSAT and the Wideband Gap-filler System will meet the burgeoning communications demands and enable larger numbers of armed UAVs to complete their missions more efficiently, officials say.

There is also a security concern. Gilson noted that military communications satellites only provide about 40 percent of DOD’s communications needs, “with commercial carriers providing the balance.” During recent operations, 78 percent of the communications capability came via leased systems. The Defense Department does not want to depend on private sources for combat communications.