Space War in the Desert

April 26, 2018

SrA. Ethan Dietz tightens the nose extender on a GBU-36 JDAM at Kandhar Airfield, Afghanistan. GPS-guided munitions are being used in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. Photo: SSgt. Trevor Rhynes


In the early 2000s, airmen working in the military space domain focused mainly on making sure combat forces understood the capabilities and limitations of space systems. “We weren’t really focused on effects as we were focused on being a service provider,” explained Col. Dee Morgan, director of space forces here.

But as space doctrine has evolved, space professionals have become more integrated into air operations centers around the world and have shifted away from the service provider model “and more toward tailored space effects in support of theater operations. So, instead of just providing satcomms or providing GPS, it [is] more tailored to what was happening in the air, on the ground, at sea,” Morgan said.

Now, in US Central Command, there is an effort to fully integrate space effects into multidomain theater operations, Morgan said. There is also a move to “normalize theater employment of space capabilities so that it’s easier for people to understand what’s available to them, and then, how do they get some of that.”

In order to integrate space effects, Morgan stressed, “You’ve got to integrate space people. And so what’s important is that we get the right people with the right skills in the right places, and probably the most important thing is once we get them to the right places, that they’re plugged into the right spaces.”

“I can send a space guy to an organization, but if they take that space guy and turn him into a battle director instead of an operational planner, then it doesn’t matter that he’s with the land component. He will have no idea what’s actually happening with the ground scheme of maneuver,” Morgan said.

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Here at the Combined Air Operations Center, Capt. Jake Thomas, deputy chief of the nonkinetic operations cell in combat plans, is an example of one of those people plugged into the right places and spaces.

A few years ago, Thomas’ position as a space weapons officer was in combat operations in the space cell, separate from combat planning. Now, he is integrated into the planning team, and he doesn’t just plan space—his cell also plans cyber and air electronic warfare.

“We have space people who are multirole in their employment here at the CAOC, not just stovepiped into focusing on space, which is a change from how it was,” Thomas said. “I’m not restricted to pick from one domain. I can use multidomain solutions and every arrow that’s in my quiver, essentially.” It is “awesome to have that kind of capability.”

But even with that domain flexibility, Thomas pointed out that space assets are being used every day to support the operations in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan—from the remotely piloted aircraft overhead to the troops on the ground.

GPS supports precision guided munitions, which have been integral to Operation Inherent Resolve and have recently been used in Afghanistan as well. However, GPS is also critical for unmanned assets, said Thomas, because there isn’t anyone in the cockpit to look out and see where the aircraft is at any given moment.

Additionally, “the guys on the ground carry GPS receivers to make sure that we know where they are,” Thomas said.

“From a Western culture, you understand that there’s fiber everywhere. So, fiber is how I get on the Internet, it’s how I check my email. But out here, they don’t have that kind of infrastructure, so space carries a lot of the mission—not just for the CAOC, but out in the field for the Internet access itself, as well as the Navy and their ships out at sea,” Thomas explained.

The CAOC also uses OPIR—overhead persistent infrared—for battlespace awareness, Thomas said, “to warn and protect our forces of significant events that are happening around the AOR.”

“Having that level of tactical awareness of what’s going on in the battle space is really critical for our operations here. Without these satellites and their ever-evolving capabilities, that is something that we would lose in a big way,” Thomas added.

Morgan noted that OPIR—which was designed as a missile warning system to support the nuclear mission—is just one example of taking systems designed for strategic-level effects “and employing tactics that allow them to produce tactical effects for the soldier on the battlefield.”

Still, space systems are being used as enabling capabilities, Morgan stressed.

“In and of themselves, there’s not a space system out there that’s going to win this war for us,” he said.

There has been a lot of talk recently about space as a fighting domain and building a fighting mindset in space, he noted, “but at the end of the day, the reason you’re doing that is so you can create effects in the air, on the ground, at sea, and that’s really what we focus on here.”


Jennifer Hlad is a freelance journalist based in the Middle East and a former Air Force Magazine senior editor.