Space and the Springs
By John Diedrich
Bush's defense policy likely to affect Springs
The Colorado Springs Gazette - Fri, 19 Jan 2001
When the U.S. military went to war in the Persian Gulf 10 years ago, it took a powerful and untested new weapon: space technology. It may prove to be as revolutionary to warfare as the Gatling gun or the airplane.
Satellite and ground systems - navigation, communication, weather and missile warning - developed in the 1980s and before at the Colorado Springs-based Space Command proved critical in the Gulf War and every U.S conflict since. The new tools allowed troops to navigate through the desert, communicate in a place with few phone lines and contend with bad weather.
"It was the first war in which space systems really played a major role in terms of the average soldier, sailor, airman and Marine," said Lt. Gen. Roger DeKok, vice commander of Air Force Space Command. "This was the first time that space affected the way our troops fought in the battle."
But while it's called "the first space war," the Persian Gulf conflict was far from a flawless first run with space tools. Commanders found they didn't have enough satellites to provide the half-million troops on the ground with all the information they demanded. Coordination among the different services needed work. And perhaps most importantly, there was not enough hand-held equipment to receive satellite information for soldiers and others on the ground.
But don't automatically blame Space Command, said John Pike, director of globalsecurity.org, a defense policy research organization in Washington, D.C. The military space gurus were in the midst of upgrading systems, evolving them from a Cold War stance to a more flexible position. The Gulf War just came a little early, Pike said. "The war happened before they had a chance to get their ducks all lined up," Pike said. "It was not that they were stupid, out of touch or behind the times. War is a come-as-you-are party."
Still, the war was "very much a watershed" for Space Command, Pike said. The war showed what military satellites could do and where they needed work. The clear star of the war was the Global Positioning System, which is headquartered at Schriever Air Force Base, formerly Falcon AFB.
Today, GPS is ubiquitous. With 28 satellites in orbit, it is the largest military constellation. GPS is used in nearly every mobile military system, from missiles to ships to jets. And millions of civilians also use GPS - farmers, airliners and hikers - to precisely find their location in remote areas. But GPS was still in its infancy in 1990 as the build-up to the Gulf War began. In the prior year, Space Command had launched nine satellites, said DeKok, who was then in charge of 2nd Space Squadron at Falcon.
By the start of the war, there were 16 GPS satellites circling the Earth, eight short of what's required to provide worldwide coverage. As the war began, little military equipment was equipped with GPS, but commanders saw the need for it as they prepared to fight in the vast desert, said Lt. Col. Dan Jordan, current commander of the GPS squadron at Schriever. Soon, GPS units were strapped to tanks and helicopters, and soldiers' demand for them skyrocketed, he said.
While the constellation was incomplete, GPS gave the U.S. and its 33 allied nations three-dimensional navigation 20 hours a day and less-accurate information 24 hours a day. But the military didn't have enough units for troops. "I was getting letters from mothers and fathers of GIs asking us where they could get GPS receivers to send to their sons and daughters," DeKok said.
Crews at Falcon had problems with at least one GPS satellite during the war. The component that controlled the satellite went haywire, pointing it away from Earth, DeKok said. There was no way to fix the malfunctioning satellite in space and the military could hardly afford to lose any GPS coverage. Engineers who designed the satellites had given up hope, but one officer came up with a way to control the spin so it pointed at the Earth twice per orbit, one of those times at the gulf. "We were able to nurse it for months to make it operate," DeKok said. "That was really heroic."
Another system used heavily is the war was Space Command's communication satellites, called Defense Satellite Communications System or DSCS. A version of the DSCS system had been flying since the 1960s, but it was primarily used for high-level communication between the president, his command authority and sensitive operations such as missile warning and nuclear mission control. As the coalition forces set up shop in the desert, they had a great demand for communication.
"We thought there was enough when the war started," said Lt. Col. Michael Dickey, commander of the DSCS squadron, also at Schriever. "We realized everyone needs comms, especially in the desert where there wasn't anything." As the war effort built up, commanders found communication gaps in the system, prompting satellite operators to essentially park one of the DSCS satellites over the Persian Gulf.
During the war, Space Command gave troops valuable warnings of incoming Iraqi Scud attacks, using systems designed to detect nuclear missile launches. The systems, in space and on the ground, are called Defense Support Program Satellites. They detect missile launches from their heat. By doing some calculations, Space Command was able to pick up the much-smaller Scuds. The biggest challenge was to rely the information to the gulf so troops could respond to the attack with Patriot missiles. After some practice, the information flowed from the satellites to ground stations to Cheyenne Mountain and back to the gulf in less than 10 minutes, DeKok said
It was a huge morale boost to the people working on the satellite consoles to know their jobs were suddenly so important, DeKok said. "We almost had to make them go home at night because it was so exciting," he said. "They knew they were contributing to success on the battlefield."
Space Command received dozens of letters of appreciation from troops, commanders and their families. In one letter, a commander praised GPS for everything from allowing meals to be delivered to soldiers at night to identifying friendly forces, DeKok said. In fact, the famous "left hook" assault by ground troops was made possible, in part, due to GPS. The Iraqis never figured a sizable force could navigate the vast desert.
Still some say the importance of space systems has been overstated. "A great deal of self-praise has been issued about our space-based communication and intelligence assets," said Anthony Cordesman, at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think-tank in Washington D.C. "But in the details of after-action reports, a lot of faults in coordination and problems in command authority surfaced. "We didn't have enough assets for our forces and we fell really short of giving allies assets. We were unprepared for coalition."
In the 10 years since the war, Space Commanders have taken the lessons of the Persian Gulf War to heart. They have updated systems, making receivers smaller and more mobile and looking for new ways to integrate space into everything the military does. Also, soldier e-mails and calls to home now use commercial systems, freeing defense systems for missions where they are needed most.
GPS now has a full complement of 24 satellites in space with four back-ups, providing constant service, telling users where they are anywhere in the world within about 20 feet.
The people running the systems at Schriever take their jobs seriously. Staff Sgt. Chris Rosenberger, a GPS satellite operator, sees himself as a critical piece of the U.S. military puzzle. "What we do here affects every military mission going on around the world," he said as he checked on a GPS ground station in Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. "That's pretty sobering to think about."
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