The Joys of GPS

by John J. Miller on April 14, 2010

in Articles,Politics

  • Sumo

February 10, 2003

How our space edge helps us in war


Around the middle of February, American satellite drivers will turn on their newest orbiter: a Navstar GPS satellite currently set for a January 29 blast-off. That’s on a hurry-up schedule, because it normally takes them about 40 days after a launch to prepare a satellite in the Global Positioning System for full operations. They have to nudge it into a final orbit and make sure it’s working correctly — and able to send out the signals that help bombers hit bull’s-eyes. “Satellites are pretty complex, and they don’t just start working a few hours after they’ve gone up,” says Air Force Lt. Col. Scott Henderson. Teams working nonstop will compress the usual 40-day timetable to 17 days or less, because two of the 28 GPS satellites now zipping around the planet are dying of old age. Another source of urgency comes from what Henderson calls “the evolving world situation.” Does he mean Iraq? “Let’s just call it ‘the evolving world situation,'” he says, with the instinctive caution of a military man holding a high-level security clearance.

The 1991 Gulf War is sometimes called the First Space War, because it was the first clash in which military assets above the earth’s atmosphere played a major role in aiding forces on the ground and in the air. GPS was a state-of-the-art technology back then. Today, it’s fundamental to the American way of war: Every American war is a space war.

The Marines like to say they’re “first to the fight.” With the advent of space warfare, however, the honor may no longer be theirs. The very first formal military maneuver against the Taliban probably occurred 22,300 miles above the earth, and was directed from Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado Springs. Schriever is an air base without an airfield — and behind its massive security, in what otherwise looks like an ordinary office building, is a nerve center for U.S. military satellites. Before 9/11, the Pentagon didn’t perceive a need to hover any of its communication satellites over Afghanistan. Within 96 hours of the terrorist strikes, however, operators with the 50th Space Wing had moved a DSCS satellite (pronounced “discus” in military slang) that was locked in a stationary orbit above the west coast of Africa to a spot above the Arabian Sea — an ideal location for piping information in and out of the Afghan theater. Moving satellites to a new orbit is no small thing, because their fuel supplies are so limited: Most of them are launched and parked, and what little fuel they have is saved for minor adjustments and an end-of-life kickout to a distant orbit. Shifting the DSCS into a new position, however, was worth the cost. “It boosted our communications ability in the region by 43 percent,” says Air Force Lt. Col. Dave Tobin.

Space operations are so sensitive that almost nobody in the military will talk about them with much specificity. After learning about the DSCS operation during an unclassified briefing on January 7, I asked Lt. Col. Ron Huntley whether similar actions had been taken above Iraq. He offered a semi-answer: “We always optimize our satellite constellations.”

That’s what Henderson’s trying to do with the new GPS orbiter. In an era of precision warfare, the addition of a single satellite can make the difference between a bomb that hits the mark and one that flies off target. Last year, says Henderson, his operators delivered 2.8-meter accuracy, which is to say that GPS signals were able to guide bombs into a circle with a 2.8-meter diameter about half the time — pretty good for a system that was designed to provide 16-meter accuracy. The dramatic improvement comes from daily monitoring to make sure that the satellites are exactly where they’re supposed to be, that their antennae are pointed in the right direction, and that all of their electronic and mechanical guts are healthy.

Satellite technology began to prove its worth on the battlefield during the Gulf War. GPS data helped Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf throw his famous left hook around Iraqi troops massed in Kuwait. American forces were swift, coordinated, and deadly because they knew their precise location at all times, even though they operated in a terrain of featureless desert. This is a great improvement over the experience of German general Erwin Rommel — the “Desert Fox” of World War II — who had to deal with the possibility that one-third of his troops would lose their way in the sands of North Africa on any given day. “Without GPS,” write Michael Russell Rip and James M. Hasik in The Precision Revolution, “the ground war [in Iraq] would have been quite different and most likely have lasted much longer.”

The Pentagon makes much more use of space today than it did a dozen years ago. Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, as compared to the Gulf War, required seven times the communications bandwidth for one-tenth of the forces. If the demands on space are greater than ever, so are the payoffs. During the Gulf War, surveillance satellites would detect Scud launches and relay the details to Patriot missile batteries, in a loop that took three or four minutes to complete. Today, that time is down to about one minute. Also during the Gulf War, only about 10 percent of U.S. bombs and missiles were assisted by GPS guidance; during Kosovo and Afghanistan, the rate was about 70 percent. Even the infantry sees a big difference. Twelve years ago, GIs lugged around GPS receivers in bulky boxes weighing nearly 20 pounds; today, handheld “pluggers” hardened for military use weigh less than three pounds.

These are measurable improvements, and each is impressive in its own right. Even more notable is the way in which the military has integrated space into virtually everything it does. Satellites, for instance, are involved in almost every stage of a bomb strike. They can identify targets and provide recent images of them, keep command centers in constant contact with pilots, and guide lethal payloads onto precise locations in all-weather conditions. A sure sign that space has become a routine part of military life is the fact that enlisted personnel increasingly drive satellites; what was once the exclusive preserve of officers is becoming downright ordinary.

“Space didn’t win the war in Afghanistan, but it was integral,” says Air Force Col. James Rodgers. “You can hardly move on the battlefield without encountering GPS and satcom. Space won’t ever substitute for some things other forces do, but we can make those forces more effective.” That’s a textbook definition of force enhancement, as distinguished from force application. Force enhancement is anything that improves the performance of warfighters, such as GPS helping a Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) zero in on a target. Force application is the JDAM’s explosion. Right now, space is used solely for force enhancement. With the possible exception of ICBMs, which leave and re-enter the atmosphere, force is never applied directly from space. That will change one day, assuming the Pentagon pursues space-based lasers or satellite-borne microwave guns, perhaps as part of a robust missile-defense program. When it does, the weaponization of space, as opposed to its mere militarization (which has already occurred), will make the acrimonious debates over national missile defense look mild.

From the perspective of the Taliban, force enhancement and force application are distinctions without a difference. For more than a year, Green Berets in Afghanistan — “snake-eaters,” in the lingo of Air Force space operators — have been able to call in deadly force from above through satellite hook-ups. Many of them carry Viper binoculars, which emit a laser beam that can convert a target’s position into exact GPS coordinates. During one operation in November 2001, Northern Alliance troops needed to cross a valley near Kunduz, but Taliban soldiers occupied it. U.S. Special Forces troops determined the enemy position and contacted the air operations center in Saudi Arabia. Within 20 minutes, a nearby B-52 attacked. “The airstrike resulted in heavy Taliban casualties, the destruction of numerous fighting positions and artillery positions, and significant damage to a command bunker,” says an official report on the incident.

This kind of space-derived accuracy has uses beyond killing America’s enemies. It minimizes collateral damage — an important function when adversaries try to use civilians as shields. It also aids supply drops in rugged terrain. Missing a location by a few meters may not matter in the flatness of western Iraq, but in the mountains of Afghanistan there isn’t much room for error. “Space also takes the search out of search and rescue,” says Air Force Maj. Brent McArthur, a veteran of Afghanistan air operations. “My second night on the job at Prince Sultan Air Base, we had an Army Apache helicopter go down.” The cause was mechanical, but the crash site was in hostile territory. “Space was our first source of information. Because of GPS, we knew the exact location of the pilots and were able to get them out of there right away,” McArthur explains. During the Vietnam War and earlier, some planes just disappeared, never to be heard from again. Those days of uncertainty for American flyers (and their families) are probably gone forever.

For all the advantages space provides, however, it also creates vulnerabilities. The U.S. may be the world’s foremost space power, but that doesn’t mean that nobody else has access to space. Commercial satellite companies, especially foreign ones that lie outside the purview of the Department of Commerce, can snap images of American bases and sell them to anybody. During Operation Enduring Freedom, the Pentagon actually bought up all the overhead shots of Afghanistan to keep them from falling into the wrong hands; it essentially leased satellites as they flew over the region. There’s no guarantee this same approach will work in future conflicts. What’s more, these commercial capabilities are steadily improving. One U.S. company, Space Imaging, Inc., says it will achieve half-meter resolution in 2004, putting it just a few years behind the presumed capabilities of the best American spy satellites. Yet the private sector shouldn’t automatically be viewed with suspicion: About 60 percent of military communications already flow through commercial satellites, with the most sensitive ones transmitted through DSCS or Milstar satellites. Without these private assets, the U.S. military would have a much more difficult time reaching around the globe.

GPS is vulnerable in the same way. It’s a Pentagon program, though it now functions as a free public utility for the whole world. Its satellites originally sent out two signals: one for civilian use, and a more accurate one for the military. In 2000, the Clinton administration turned off the filter, giving everybody virtually the same quality of information as the U.S. military. That means some future foe may be able to use GPS coordinates to kill Americans. In fact, this might already have happened: On September 10, 2001, Mohammed Atta is known to have been in New York City and was probably in possession of a GPS receiver. Some investigators believe he locked in the coordinates of the World Trade Center (something he could have done even before the filter was turned off in 2000) and used them the next day after hijacking American Airlines Flight 11 from Boston.

A heavy reliance on space also puts U.S. space assets at risk. Depending on space means having to defend space, against everything from on-the-ground GPS jammers that confuse precision bombs to the anti-satellite weapons that aim at the mainsprings of American communications, surveillance, and precision. Nobody has ever turned an object in outer space into a military target during real combat, but that day can’t be far off.

The Pentagon thinks it might arrive as soon as 2017. That’s the mock date for the largest space war game it has ever held, which is scheduled for the end of February. It will feature 250 participants from around the world, and they will marshal the hardware of the blue team (i.e., the U.S.) against the red team, defined in this scenario as a “credible space opponent.” During the war games of the Cold War, of course, the red team was usually modeled on the Soviet Union. The Pentagon never confirmed this, but everybody knew it to be the case. Nobody will say what country the red team of the space war game is based upon. From the vague descriptions released to the public, though, there’s a single obvious candidate: China.

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