Desert Storm

The First Space War

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Glossary of Terms

Some have called Desert Storm the first "space war," [1] but the real difference between Desert Storm and previous conflicts was the breadth and scale in which space, military and Gray Space, was used. Every space mission played a part, in fact, the most satellite ground stations and pieces of user equipment in history were deployed to the theater of operations—all to enable the warfighter on the ground to reach out and touch space. [2]

Setting the Stage

Central Command (CENTCOM), the organization responsible for military operations in the Gulf,was between war plans when Iraqi troops crossed over into Kuwait in August 1990 drawing America into war. Although CENTCOM's operations plans were incomplete, they indicated their explicit intention to make use of space assets in the conflict. [3] At the onset of hostilities, most of the satellites eventually used in the Gulf War were already in orbit and available, but satellites alone weren't enough to put space data in the hands of warfighters. Over 7000 terminals and associated pieces of user equipment eventually had to be deployed; applicable organizations in the space bureaucracy had to be contacted to secure access; arrangements made for data dissemination and resolution of issues such as satellite orbital positions. [4] The rate at which space capabilities were mobilized depended upon several factors: availability of ground equipment and satellites, launch windows, processing actions required to launch a spacecraft into orbit, time required to check out newly launched satellites or to reposition a satellite for better coverage, and the coordination of placing trained personnel where needed. [5] CENTCOM had to work through the complex bureaucracy that governs how space assets are controlled and allocated. The following table displays just a portion of that tangled bureaucracy,which would eventually lead to the use of 51 military and 12 commercial satellites, making up the Coalition order of battle.[6]

Satellite CENTCOM Contact for Access
Military Information not available
Landsat Defense Mapping Agency
SPOT Defense Mapping Agency
Military Defense Comm Agency, Joint Staff, Army Space Cmd, Naval Telecomm, USSPC, SAC
Commercial Defense Mapping Agency
DMSP N/A—properly equipped units can receive data
NOAA TIROS N/A—properly equipped units can receive data
METEOSAT N/A—properly equipped units can receive data
Transit N/A—anyone with proper equipment can access
GPS USSPC controlled accuracy of nav signal
Early Warning

Surveillance Satellites

Mission: These satellites provide multispectral surface imaging for surface mapping and surface-change detection. [7] Imagers, whether military or civil, have to make a tradeoff between resolution or the surface area of coverage—the greater the resolution, the less surface area viewed. [8] The following satellites all have multispectral imaging (MSI) capabilities and a preponderance of these are Gray Space satellites:

Use in Desert Shield/Storm: Military planners were able to obtain information not normally available to them and MSI displayed features on the earth's surface beyond that able to be detected by the human eye. MSI satellites were used to image the theater of operations; new maps of Kuwait, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia were prepared based on these images. [10] These maps included roads, bridges, airfields and even trails. The 82nd Airborne used LANDSAT imagery of Kuwait City to determine if there were traps or obstructions which would prevent an airborne landing. The Navy used MSI in planning amphibious operations because depending on water clarity, MSI images can show subsurface features down to 30 meters. MSI was also used to gain information on Iraq's order of battle. [11] The Coalition made use of the stereo imaging capabilities of SPOT by producing stereoscopic image videos of targets and routes of flight for the pilot's preflight briefings. [12]

Shortfalls: As far as LANDSAT is concerned, it provides only 30 meter resolution while SPOT offers 10 meters and Meteor Prioida advertises 5 meter resolution. LANDSAT also proved to be limited in responsiveness. A problem encountered with SPOT was, because it is commercial, it was available not only to Coalition members, but to Iraq as well. This time, Coalition members cooperated to deny Iraq access to SPOT's satellite imagery products by stopping the flow of SPOT images from France. [13] This may not be something the allies are always able to do and should be constantly in the mind of the war planners and fighters.

Communication Satellites

"Satellites were the single most important factor that enabled us to build the command, control, and communication network for Desert Shield"

—General Colin Powell [14]

Mission: Communication satellites provide communication connectivity for tactical warning, intelligence data transfer, command and control between the National Command Authorities and deployed commanders. [15] In August 1990, the United States had 23 military communication satellites in orbit. Of these Coalition forces employed 6 ultra high frequency (UHF), 9 super high frequency (SHF), and 2 experimental satellites for a total of 17 military spacecraft.

System Classification Type Number
DSCS II, III US military SHF 6 (2,4)
LEASAT US military UHF 2
LES-9 US military UHF 1
SLDCOM experimental special purpose 1
MACSAT experimental special purpose 1
Skynet British military SHF 2
NATO-3 military SHF 1

The communication satellites listed were augmented by leasing Gray Space satellites, primary among these were INTELSAT, INMARSAT, and AT&T. Others included MCI, the Bell Companies and Sprint. Not all channels on all satellites were available for Desert Storm use because some satellites continued to serve other government customers. [16]

Use in Desert Shield/Storm: The communications requirements of hi-tech warfare were far greater than the infrastructure in Saudi Arabia could support. Although all the communication satellites were already in orbit when Iraq crossed into Kuwait, most of the ground communications terminals had to be brought in theater along with developing an effective network plan to incorporate them into a working system. One Gulf War participant stated that in the first ninety days "we put more communication capacity in Saudi Arabia than we have had in Europe for the past forty years." [17] Additionally, during Desert Shield other measures were taken by various space-related agencies to improve communications coverage. The antenna patterns on two Defense Satellite Communications System (DSCS) satellites were reconfigured to increase signal strength, Air Force Space Command repositioned a spare DSCS II from over the Pacific Ocean to over the theater, and LES-9 was moved from over the United States to over the Atlantic. All this served to significantly increase capacity. [18] Each SHF satellite was capable of carrying the equivalent of more than 1000 simultaneous, 2-way telephone communications and carried almost 80 % of the communications traffic. Eventually communications satellites would carry 90 % of intertheater communications and a substantial amount of intratheater communications—in all, they provided 200 million bits per second of data. [19] DSCS was used daily by the JFACC to transmit the air tasking order to air bases. [20]

Shortfalls: While communications satellites allowed CENTCOM access to extra support without deployment of additional equipment or personnel, the communications demands, especially imagery, saturated the system and it could not keep up. In all, CENTCOM made use of 143 SHF satellite ground stations, over 1000 UHF ground stations and about 40 commercial stations, yet even this was not enough. [21] Additionally, the fact CENTCOM could not go through a single point of contact for using communications satellites was both inefficient and frustrating. The following chart depicts the controlling agencies during Desert Shield and Desert Storm. The "CINC contact" column identifies the organization CENTCOM requested access from for use of a communications satellite. "Network control" manages which channels are active and who could communicate over them, and "satellite control" maintained vehicles' support systems (temperature, power, etc.) and adjusted orbits as necessary.

Controlling Agencies for Communication Satellites
Satellite CINC Contact Network Control Satellite Control
Leasat, Gapfiller, LES-9 Joint Staff (1) CENTCOM Contractor
Skynet ARSPC United Kingdom AFSPC
Commercial DCA (2) Commercial Contractor
Note 1: Joint Staff prioritizes and approves access during wartime
Note 2: DCA responsible for contracting commercial satellite links [22]

Meteorological Satellites

Mission: Weather satellites are designed to provide accurate, timely weather data including specialized meteorological , oceanographic, and solar geophysical data.

Use in Desert Shield/Storm: A total of six satellites from three separate systems, broadcasting continuously, provided visual, infrared and microwave weather data. [23]

Meteorological Satellites Used in the Gulf War
System Classification Number Orbit Type Weather Images/Day Operator
DMSP US military 3 polar 6 AFSPC
NOAA TIROS US civil 2 polar 4 NOAA
METEOSAT European civil 1 geostationary 24 European Space Agency

Theater surface and air commanders relied on satellite weather support for planning targets, selecting munitions, redirecting strikes and reconnaissance sorties, planning movements on the ground and optimizing night vision equipment and night capable targeting systems. With the advent of laser guided weapons, the need for clear weather conditions places an even greater emphasis on accurate weather reports. [24] Weather satellites provided information to alert troops of sandstorms, to predict possible spread of chemical agents and to monitor burning oil wells. [25] One of the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) satellites was launched in December 1990 to augment area coverage and it had the additional capability of detecting areas of moisture and standing water through microwave imagery. This was useful for planning traffic routes for the ground forces. [26] Since DMSP doesn't operate between the hours of 10 am to 6 pm and 10 pm to 6 am, the Gray Space satellites, TIROS and METEOSAT, made up for this gap in DMSP coverage with overlapping hours of operation. Blowing sand, dust and thunderstorms would have been almost impossible to predict in isolated locations without their midday imagery to give information on the late afternoon jet stream that drove the desert's evening weather patterns. [27]

Shortfalls: There were problems with the receiving equipment and dissemination networks; there were four different types of receivers deployed and they weren't compatible with one another. This delayed receipt of timely weather data. With rapidly changing weather conditions in the Gulf, this meant field units often did not have the latest target area weather data and high quality satellite imagery didn't get to the flyers. Some Navy ships were completely unable to receive DMSP data because of incompatibilities. All this emphasized the need for more user friendly and compatible systems. [28]

Navigation Satellites

GPS "was the biggest combat multiplier on the battlefield. If we spend a nickel, spend it on these."

—Brigade Commander, Desert Storm [29]

Mission: Navigation satellites provide precise, world-wide, two and three-dimensional position, velocity and timing data. Signals are transmitted to ground, naval and airborne forces equipped with navigation receivers. Transit, an older system, and Global Positioning System (GPS), a system in its infancy, were the two systems used. [30]

System User Information Frequency Accuracy Agency
Transit naval vessels 2-dimensional periodic (35-100 minutes) several hundred meters Naval SPC
GPS all 2-dimensional 24 hours/day 4.5 meters AFSPC
3-dimensional 18 hours/day 8.3 meters

Use in Desert Shield/Storm: Navigation in an austere desert environment is difficult with few visible landmarks and the blowing sand obscuring what roads are visible. Navigation satellites proved indispensable and GPS, in particular, would emerge the big technological winner in the Gulf. In August 1990, GPS had not yet reached operational capacity, in fact it was still two years away, yet the system was employed and performed miraculously. [31] To provide 24-hour worldwide coverage, GPS requires 21 satellites, plus 3 on-orbit spares. When Desert Shield kicked off, just 13 of those 21 were already in orbit, providing 9.5 hours of 2-dimensional service and 8.2 hours of 3-dimensional service a day; only 5% of Air Force aircraft were equipped with GPS receivers. From August to November, Air Force Space Command launched three GPS satellites and repositioned several others to maximize coverage and increase the hours of GPS navigation available, providing nearly round the clock service as indicated by the table above. [32] To further complicate matters, five of the GPS satellites were developmental and, in fact, years past their design lifetimes. Eventually three of these developmental satellites experienced malfunctions and Air Force Space Command satellite controllers used their ingenuity to devise solutions to keep them operating. All these efforts paid off. [33]

It was GPS-equipped HH-53 Pave Low helicopters which led the initial air strike into Iraq, kicking off the air war. Teamed with Apaches, equipped with relatively antiquated Doppler navigation radar, the Pave Low helicopters led to the initial point of attack, pinpointed the Apaches' position for them using GPS, allowing the Apaches to continue on to attack radar vans with their Hellfire missiles. [34] This was just the beginning of the GPS revolution. GPS was used to mark target locations for bombing, guide strike packages to targets, direct high altitude bombing runs at night and during bad weather. It allowed B-52's to have an electronically silent approach to their initial points, and facilitated aircraft separation while flying in formation or in weather. [35]

Ground forces used GPS extensively as well and, although the first ground forces deployed only a handful of experimental portable receivers, the Army quickly grasped their value and procured several thousand units within the first few months of Desert Shield. [36] Special Operations Forces used handheld receivers for positioning behind enemy lines, troops used GPS to fix positions during mine clearing operations, spotting during artillery operations, positioning equipment such as Patriot radar and resupply depots, and some ground commanders have stated the critical left hook would not have been possible without GPS for navigation and marking positions. During the Battle of Khafji, USMC-Army-Navy Gunnery Liaison Coordination teams credited GPS with keeping fratricide at a minimum. [37] The more GPS was used, the more uses were found—it was indispensable.

Shortfalls: The biggest shortfall was simply the shortage of GPS receivers in theater. Only five percent of the aircraft and a handful of ground troops had receivers. The US couldn't ship receivers to the desert fast enough. Eventually, the US turned to commercial sources which ended up supplying almost 4500 handheld GPS receivers, compared to only 850 military receivers. These commercial models were non-crypto capable, therefore nonsecure. [38] This meant that, had Iraq had the capability to do so, they could have benefited from GPS as well.

Early Warning Satellites

Mission: Early warning satellites provide ballistic missile early warning and other surveillance information. The Defense Support Program (DSP) is a very survivable and reliable satellite system which proved integral to the operation of Coalition forces. [39] Originally launched to provide warning to the US of ballistic missile attacks, three DSP satellites were used in the Gulf War. [40]

Use in Desert Shield/Storm: The big mission for DSP in the war was the detection of tactical missile launches in the Persian Gulf region. It was used to detect Iraqi Scud launches and to provide timely warning to military forces and civilians alike. In this function DSP not only had military value, but political and psychological value as well. [41] DSP did this function by continuously scanning for and then reporting bright infrared "events". These "events" were the exhaust glow from the ballistic missile launches.

Shortfalls: Although evidence shows that during Desert Storm, DSP detected all the Scud events, it was unable to distinguish between individual missiles on the occasions when they were launched in salvos from sites located close to one another. Therefore, the number of individual Scuds being launched could not always be determined. [42]

Iraqi Use of Space

Iraq's space capability at the beginning of Desert Shield was quite limited and as the war progressed it became almost nonexistent. At the start, Iraq had access to commercial satellites and civil systems, some of the same ones that Coalition forces used, but as the conflict progressed the real story on Iraqi use of space was how Coalition forces denied Iraq that capability. [43] At the start of Desert Storm, allied forces bombed Iraq's space ground stations and soon the only satellite communications transmitter accessible to Iraq was the mobile dish belonging to a CNN reporter in Iraq. The Iraqi leadership and Iraqi citizens could still receive commercial television from home satellite dishes, but that was the extent. [44]

One area where Coalition forces chose not to deny Iraq access to space was weather satellites, specifically Gray Space weather satellites. The only way to cut Iraq off from weather data would have been to turn off the NOAA TIROS and other weather satellite transmitters. This would have denied their use to everyone; allied, enemy and neutral parties. General Schwarzkopf, Commander in Chief, CENTCOM, in cooperation with the Department of State, NOAA and others, decided the benefit of information from these weather satellites was more valuable to the Coalition forces and outweighed the benefit of denying it to Iraq. Therefore, NOAA TIROS and METEOSAT continued to transmit throughout the war. [45]

Iraqi leadership was very aware of the value of space systems and of the US space capabilities. Coalition forces were able to all but eliminate Iraq's capability to access space systems through cooperation with communications firms and a few well aimed strikes. This hurt Iraq in many areas. Lacking space reconnaissance capability placed Iraqi forces at a great disadvantage because they couldn't track deployment and disposition of forces and didn't detect preparations for a ground attack by Coalition forces. Having that type of valuable information might well have changed the face of the Gulf War. At the same time, Iraq was aware that the US was keeping track of their movements and force disposition. [46]

Lessons Learned

We must do a better job integrating space into all facets of air operations. Planners must understand how space can help them better observe the battlefield and make more timely operational planning decisions. Space must be integrated into exercises and included in training so every airmen understands how best to use what space offers. Warfighters must demand user equipment for their aircraft and weapons which will increase the lethality, versatility and precision of all aerospace systems. Conversely, space must be made more accessible to those planners and warfighters. The "space bureacracy" is far too complex and should be streamlined and made user friendly. The space community and the warfighter must work as one in order to truly proceed along that "evolutionary path to a space and air force." [47]

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[1] United States Department of Defense, Report of the Secretary of Defense to the President and the Congress, (Washington GPO, February 1992), 85. [Return]

[2] United States Air Force, Gulf War Air Power Survey (U), Volume 4, (Department of the Air Force, 1993), 177. [Return]

[3] Air Power Survey (U), 12. [Return]

[4] Air Power Survey (U), 1-2. [Return]

[5] Air Power Survey (U), xxi. [Return]

[6] Air Power Survey (U), 5. [Return]

[7] United States Department of Defense, Conduct of the Persian Gulf War: Final Report to Congress, (Department of Defense, April 1992), Appendix K, T-230. [Return]

[8] Sir Peter Anson and Dennis Cummings, "The First Space War: The Contribution of Satellites to the Gulf War," The First Information War, (AFCEA International Press, October 1992), 131. [Return]

[9] Conduct of the Persian Gulf War, T-230. [Return]

[10] Mark Grossman, Encyclopedia of the Persian Gulf War, (ABC-CLIO, 1995) 167. [Return]

[11] Conduct of the Persian Gulf War, T-231. [Return]

[12] "The First Space War," 132. [Return]

[13] Air Power Survey (U), xii. [Return]

[14] Thomas Moorman Jr, Lt Gen, USAF, quoting Gen Powell, "Space, A New Strategic Frontier," Air Power Journal, (Department of the Air Force, Spring 1992), 62. [Return]

[15] Conduct of the Persian Gulf War, T-222. [Return]

[16] Air Power Survey (U), 6. [Return]

[17] Air Power Survey (U), 55. [Return]

[18] Air Power Survey (U), 51-53. [Return]

[19] Air Power Survey (U), 45. [Return]

[20] Conduct of the Persian Gulf War, T-225. [Return]

[21] Air Power Survey (U), 55. [Return]

[22] Air Power Survey (U), 52. [Return]

[23] Air Power Survey (U), 4. [Return]

[24] "The First Space War," 131. [Return]

[25] Conduct of the Persian Gulf War, T-219. [Return]

[26] Air Power Survey (U), 146. [Return]

[27] Air Power Survey (U), 142. [Return]

[28] Air Power Survey (U), 167. [Return]

[29] Air Power Survey (U), 136. [Return]

[30] Air Power Survey (U), 10. [Return]

[31] Michael R. Rip and David P. Lusch, "The Precision Revolution: The NAVStar Global Positioning System in the Second Gulf War," Intelligence and National Security, (April 1994), 171. [Return]

[32] Air Power Survey (U), 115-117. [Return]

[33] Air Power Survey (U), 124. [Return]

[34] Michael R. Gordon and Bernard E. Trainor, General, The General's War, (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1995), 120-1. [Return]

[35] Air Power Survey (U), 131-2. [Return]

[36] Report of the Secretary of Defense to the President and the Congress, 86. [Return]

[37] Air Power Survey (U), 136-7. [Return]

[38] Conduct of the Persian Gulf War, T-227. [Return]

[39] Report of the Secretary of Defense to the President and the Congress, 85. [Return]

[40] Air Power Survey (U), 8. [Return]

[41] Report of the Secretary of Defense to the President and the Congress, 85. [Return]

[42] Air Power Survey (U), 4. [Return]

[43] Air Power Survey (U) , 18. [Return]

[44] Air Power Survey (U), 28. [Return]

[45] Air Power Survey (U), 27. [Return]

[46] Air Power Survey (U), 34. [Return]

[47] Department of the Air Force, Global Engagement: A Vision for the 21st Century Air Force, (Department of the Air Force, 1997), 7. [Return]

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