Space Power in the Gulf

June 1, 2003

Eight days before Gulf War II, the Air Force director of space operations and integration made a bold statement. Anybody who tangles with USAF’s space capabilities would have “a real tough go,” declared Maj. Gen. Franklin J. Blaisdell. “We are so dominant in space that I pity a country that would come up against us.”

Blaisdell then added, “I don’t believe [US foes] really understand how powerful we are.”

They understand now. In Operation Iraqi Freedom, space forces displayed awesome power and flexibility. They put the “precision” in precision attack, found tanks in howling sandstorms, relayed commands to unmanned air vehicles, tracked troops on the move, listened in on Iraqi communications, drenched the battlespace with usable decision information, and much, much more.

Space has long been viewed as a key support asset, but the latest war showed space power has advanced beyond that stage.

Its devastating effectiveness was evident April 7, when USAF attacked a Baghdad site in which Saddam Hussein and his sons were thought to be hiding. A B-1B bomber dropped four GBU-31 weapons, all guided to precise spots by the signals of Global Positioning System satellites. The bombs scored direct hits. (Saddam’s fate is unknown.)

Coalition bombers and fighters dropped more than 5,500 GPS­guided Joint Direct Attack Munitions, in daylight and night, in all weather, with shattering effectiveness.

Equally dependent on space were Tomahawk missiles, of which the Navy launched hundreds. Secretary of the Air Force James G. Roche noted each Tomahawk precision attack had seven “moving parts”—intelligence prep, target location, command and control, weather assessment, launch, en route navigation, and damage assessment. Only one part—the actual launch—was conventional, said Roche. All others depended on space assets.

US imaging satellites gave commanders an unprecedented view of targets and battlespace. The March 20 attack on Iraqi leadership targets in Baghdad was based in part on information from image-snapping satellites. Commanders of ground forces carried portable devices to receive such target images from orbiting spacecraft.

Powerful imaging radar satellites helped US forces decimate Iraq’s Republican Guard. When sandstorms disrupted conventional reconnaissance, overhead radar, which could “see” through sand, clouds, and other obscurants, spotted guard units, said USAF. Thus pinpointed, these units came under deadly air attacks that destroyed them as fighting units.

Thanks to satellites, US forces enjoyed robust communications. Satellites also made it possible to command and control UAVs such as Predator and Global Hawk. Line-of-sight communication extends out only 130 miles. Beyond that, said the Air Force, UAV commands flowed through satellites such as the secure Milstar.

Space communications boosted what the Air Force calls “time-critical targeting”—strikes on moving or fleeting targets. Until recently, such attacks could take hours or days. In Gulf War II, it sometimes took “less than 15 minutes,” a senior space officer, Col. Larry James, told the Los Angeles Times. Space was critical to navigation. GPS receivers were affixed to tanks, trucks, and aircraft across the theater. According to the Army, GPS helped keep track of supplies and coordinate logistics operations. An innovation was Grenadier BRAT, a small transmitter carried by individuals. It communicated with satellites to let commanders follow movements of certain forces.

Weather satellites gave warning of sandstorms, rain, winds, or other forms of turbulent weather. Operational interests varied. Tank commanders wanted to know moisture content of soil in some areas. The Navy was interested in winds and sea states. USAF had its eye on thunderstorms. The Air Force also used weather data to avoid conditions that might produce telltale contrails.

USAF’s Defense Support Program satellites, equipped with infrared sensors, spotted missile launches. Air Force space specialists provided warning on 70 percent of Iraq’s attacks. When spacecraft detected oil wells ablaze in southern Iraq, commanders decided to advance the start of a Marine attack into Iraq in order to stop the sabotage.

US space power is more than systems. It also includes people who develop, operate, and use them. Most of them—80 percent—wear an Air Force uniform. USAF has 33,600 space specialists at 24 domestic and 12 foreign locations.

In the aftermath of war, the Air Force—DOD’s executive agent for space—has a big job on its hands. One is to assure the continued development of space personnel trained for new types of warfare.

Air Force officials say USAF needs to get some major programs on track. USAF finds that its spacecraft, like its aircraft, have grown old. The primary warning satellite—the DSP—dates to the 1970s. Some GPS systems are 14 years old—twice their design life. The Air Force must develop new systems such as the Space Based Radar even as it tries to upgrade its existing ones.

As usual, however, there isn’t enough money in the Pentagon budget for the Air Force to buy everything that the space forces want or even to replace or refurbish everything it needs. Like leaders in the flying Air Force, those in the space forces will be searching hard for ways to preserve their effectiveness in a time of inadequate funding. However, it is some comfort to know that, as the recent war demonstrated, US space power is focused, flexible, and utterly dominant.