Satellite-Based Systems Prove Their Worth

By James Kitfield

August 15, 2003

As U.S. forces raced up the Euphrates River Valley in the early days of Operation Iraqi Freedom, they confronted a dust storm of nearly biblical proportions. Though it would cause a discernible pause in offensive operations, that storm might have proven catastrophic if it had taken U.S. military commanders completely by surprise. Luckily, a space surveillance system called MODIS (for Moderate-Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer), which flies aboard NASA satellites, had accurately detected the surface dust associated with the approaching storm and U.S. commanders were forewarned.

That is just one of many instances during the Iraqi campaign that illustrates how advances in space-based electronics and communications are revolutionizing the American style of war. The extended lines of communication in the offensive from Kuwait to Baghdad made U.S. forces unusually dependent on satellite communications. The satellite-based Global Positioning System guided most strategic strikes by Joint Direct Attack Munitions. The ubiquitous unmanned aerial vehicles that were the technological standouts of the campaign also relied on satellite communications.

Since becoming secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld has pushed a revolution in space-based capabilities, following the recommendations of the 2001 Space Commission he chaired. The commission argued that the nation's ability to dominate space will prove as vital in the information age as were the shipyards and factories of America's "arsenal of democracy" during the industrial age.

To press that point, last October the Pentagon established the Transformational Communications Office to coordinate the communications and intelligence efforts of the Defense Department, the National Reconnaissance Office (which operates the nation's secret constellation of spy satellites), and NASA. The agencies are expected to spend upwards of $10 billion in the coming years to field a network of satellites that will bring a secure Internet-like communications capability to front-line U.S. military forces around the world.

One example of the new approach is Space-Based Infrared System (SBIRS-High), a satellite constellation under development that will be used by the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency to provide early warnings of missile launches and by the NRO for intelligence gathering. The Bush administration's fiscal 2004 budget request includes $713 million for the SBIRS-High program, with a first launch of an actual satellite scheduled for 2007.

The SBIRS-Low program was designed to place a satellite system in low Earth orbit to detect and track ballistic missiles. Though canceled last year due to cost overruns and schedule delays, the program has been reconfigured as the $3.1 billion Satellite Tracking and Surveillance System.

In terms of communications satellites, the Defense Information Systems Agency, under the management of the NRO, continues to coordinate upgrades to existing systems. Notably, the Advanced Extremely High-Frequency (AEHF) satellite system is being developed to replace the current generation of Milstar communications satellites. The goal of the AEHF system is to provide more secure satellite communications.

Meanwhile, Pentagon officials continue to develop a space-based radar system designed to provide unprecedented all-weather surveillance capability for military commanders. Launch of the system is expected between 2010 and 2012.



By James Kitfield

August 15, 2003

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