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Document created: 1 June 2007
Air & Space Power Journal - Summer 2007
Lt Col Edward B. "Mel" Tomme, USAF, Retired*
The argument by LTC Bob Guerriero in favor of tactical satellites, which appears in this issue, is one of the few attempts I have seen at a rational rather than an emotional rebuttal to the arguments presented in my article “The Myth of the Tactical Satellite” and the in-depth study from which that article was derived.1 I appreciate the thought that went into his rebuttal; however, he appears to have missed the point of those works. In neither piece did I claim that conducting such missions as communications, imagery collection, signals intelligence (SIGINT), or blue-force tracking was impossible using so-called tactical satellites. In fact, I devoted a large portion of those works to showing exactly how effectively we could perform those missions from space. What I claimed was that using tactical satellites to perform those missions was highly impractical when constrained by a limited budget. The point of that detailed research was to give senior decision makers a tool with which to measure the actual opportunity cost of such an endeavor.
According to Colonel Guerriero, “A tactical satellite that complements other intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) platforms by providing some specific pieces of information, even just once per day, could be extremely valuable to a commander.”2 The unstated corollary to his assertion suggests that such a capability will also cost money—money that we could use elsewhere. Undoubtedly, commanders on the ground would rarely turn down an additional satellite photo of their area of responsibility. Having a gap-filling capability to compensate for the weaknesses of other assets would also be a plus. However, before commanders sign up to own that capability, they should know the opportunity cost of getting that image and weigh it against their tactically sized budgets. In a vast majority of tactical situations, some other means of obtaining that photo exist—means that are responsive to the tactical commander instead of being slaves to orbital mechanics. Those means are almost invariably much more affordable, much less predictable to opposing forces, and thus much more effective. When such means are available, the rationale for going to space to get that photo seems counterproductive. It’s not that those missions can’t be done from space; it’s that in most cases, they shouldn’t be done from space. The opportunity costs are huge. The money that commanders would need to spend to buy a single satellite to produce that one picture per day could buy quite a bit of alternative equipment, including nonorbital systems that would likely prove more effective since they don’t spend most of their time halfway around the globe.
Space-based assets have two things in their favor that in many cases mitigate their expense: freedom of overflight and relative immunity to threats of physical destruction.** The big operational drawbacks to satellites are excessive predictability and extremely limited persistence. Those combinations of factors tend to make satellites very useful in the strategic role. In contrast, tactical areas of interest are almost always significantly less than global, in most cases well within the footprints of nonorbital assets. Colonel Guerriero states that “tactical operations . . . can last for days, weeks, months, or longer,”3 implying that individual engagements and battles between small maneuver forces can be linked in time and space to form a single tactical operation.*** It is a near truism that all military activity involving troops in contact does occur at the tactical level. It is also fairly clear that when a series of battles or engagements starts to last “days, weeks, months, or longer,” the level of control should shift up to the operational or strategic levels of war. It seems obvious that the longer an operation lasts, even though, in truth, it consists of a series of related tactical events, the further up the spectrum of war it must progress. Without such a progression of command attention, the rationale for having higher levels of command would not exist. Regardless of personal interpretations of Army doctrine, operations lasting for significant periods and/or extending across substantial spatial extents would appear to warrant the attention of higher-level command, and hence should be classified collectively as something other than tactical operations.
Why is the definition of the level of war so germane to the problem of the so-called tactical satellite? It all boils down to truth in advertising. Advertising is how any product goes after customers and, ultimately, funding. Selection of the name tactical satellite appears to have its basis in sex appeal; the term sells the concept to an acquisitions staff desperately looking for ways to enhance delivery of command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance effects to the lowest level of war fighter whose inability to receive those effects adequately during Operation Iraqi Freedom has been well documented.4 Who could refuse to buy a program that promises to deliver tactically controlled space effects directly to the front lines at an ostensibly affordable price? Unfortunately, the deliverable effects publicly touted as the raison d’être for funding a tactical-satellite program, apparently designed to gain maximum attention from potential funding sources, appear unachievable within a constrained budget.
The marketing campaign related to tactical satellites is uniform in its message of direct tactical support. For example, the Air Force Space Battlelab and the Army Space and Missile Defense Battle Lab demonstrated the innovative Virtual Mission Operations Center (VMOC), a program designed to allow control of tactical satellites from the field, to Air Force Space Command commanders. That demonstration touted the use of untrained enlisted personnel in a simulated field environment outside of the Fourteenth Air Force headquarters building to show the system’s capability to give a tactical soldier the ability to direct satellite collections and access the products in real time. The obvious implication of this demonstration was to show that the capability would be pushed out into the foxholes where even the lowest-level soldier could task orbital assets and immediately use the space data he or she had requested. Article after article in the press stressed directly taskable support to warriors in the field with statements such as “We believe we will give the soldier on the ground the ability to control a spacecraft payload,” “Today’s technology is close to giving a foot soldier and the tactical warfighter the kind of space capabilities needed,” and “[This capability will] directly benefit the troop on the ground.”5 Briefings by senior officials in the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) heightened anticipation among senior Air Force leadership of direct tactical tasking and support from space.6 An article on TacSat-3 in the Air Force Times even bore the headline “Satellite in Works to Beam Battlefield Pictures to Troops.” That article went on to say, “When the Air Force began beaming pictures of the battle space from airplanes to small units of ground troops, it was a breakthrough. Now, the Air Force Research Laboratory is looking at doing the same with pictures from satellites. . . . The key to the experiments is to show a satellite can fly over the theater and that a soldier on the ground can directly task the satellite and get information.”7 Without question, the marketing thrust is geared toward the idea that tactical satellites will provide direct support to tactical war fighters.
The problem with this coordinated marketing campaign relates to the need for truth in advertising, discussed above. In all likelihood, the effects tantalizingly advertised by tactical-satellite advocates will not find their way to the front lines at all. As shown in “The Myth of the Tactical Satellite,” the least expensive tactical satellite used for imagery will cost a commander about $500,000 per hour overhead in acquisition costs alone and will provide only a stroboscopic glimpse of the battlefield, less than two minutes out of every five hours or so. Furthermore, per-hour cost isn’t the only issue. Many years prior to actual need, senior leaders will have to make decisions concerning which missions may require augmentation; planners must program resources to develop and acquire the necessary single-purpose satellites and launch vehicles; and all this investment must then go into suspended animation for an undetermined period of time to await an unspecified tactical need in an unknown geographical area.
Those acquisitions and logistical costs add up quickly, but prioritization of access to the asset during the limited time it is overhead will be an even more pressing problem. It is naïve to believe that such prioritization will occur at less than the operational level of command, if not higher. Colonel Guerriero as much as admits this point himself when he describes the operational level as the one at which “a tactical satellite might prove most useful.”8 Additionally, anyone who has worked with imagery or SIGINT knows that substantial analysis goes on before publication of any product because the raw data is difficult for amateurs to interpret. Getting these products to the field would not be as simple as picking up developed photos from Wal-Mart. It is highly doubtful that the fabled sergeant in the foxhole directing a satellite to give him an image of the enemy over the next hill will ever exist, given the current physical and fiscal constraints on tactical satellites. Even if he does not personally direct the sensor, the odds that his need to obtain one of the very few images captured during a pass will rise to the top of the queue seem very low, considering the numerous, simultaneous tactical engagements likely to be in progress at the time. The resources are just too precious.
One could certainly move a family’s household goods across the country with a fleet of Ferraris that one had to buy specifically for that job and then garage them for an indefinite period before the family even had orders to move. Obviously, however, a number of more operationally and fiscally responsible paths to the desired end state exist. Our goal should not be to go to space just because we can.
In conclusion, we must definitely look to space when it offers the most effective way to accomplish the mission. Without a doubt, a mission requiring global coverage or even overflight of denied territory beyond the range of airborne or near-space sensors plays to the strength of space. We could even envision missions in which receiving information exfiltrated from Colonel Guerriero’s small covert-operations team is important enough to warrant launching an asset costing several tens of millions of dollars. However in the vast majority of realistic situations, given the existence of so many more effective ways to support our tactical warriors during the relatively short timescales and across the relatively small areas in which they operate, it appears that promoting the theory of “space because we can” is an unaffordable, unresponsive, ineffective, and ill-advised course of action.
Colorado Springs, Colorado
* Colonel Tomme’s final Air Force assignment in 2006 was as deputy director, Air Force Tactical Exploitation of National Capabilities (TENCAP), where he directed programs designed to extract tactical effects from strategic overhead assets.
** The recent Chinese antisatellite launch considerably dilutes this advantage.
*** Extending this assertion to its logical but absurd conclusion, one could consider all of World War II a single tactical engagement.
1. Lt Col Edward B. Tomme, "The Myth of the Tactical Satellite," Air and Space Power Journal 20, no. 2 (Summer 2006): 89–100, http://www.airpower.maxwell.af.mil/airchronicles/apj/apj06/sum06/sum06.pdf; and idem, The Strategic Nature of the Tactical Satellite, Research Paper 2006-1 (Maxwell AFB, AL: Airpower Research Institute, College of Aerospace Doctrine, Research and Education, n.d.), https://research.maxwell.af.mil/papers/ay2006/CADRE/tomme .pdf (accessed 31 January 2007).
2. LTC Bob Guerriero, "Tactical Satellites: The Rest of the Story," Air and Space Power Journal 21, no. 2 (Summer 2007): 28.
3. Ibid., 27.
4. Lt Col Edward B. Tomme, The Paradigm Shift to Effects-Based Space: Near-Space as a Combat Space Effects Enabler, Research Paper 2005-01 (Maxwell AFB, AL: Airpower Research Institute, College of Aerospace Doctrine, Research and Education, n.d.), https://research.maxwell.af.mil/papers/ay2005/ari/CADRE_ARI_2005-01.pdf (accessed 17 January 2007).
5. Patrick Chisolm, "Micro-Eyes in Space," Military Geospatial Technology 4, no. 3 (14 July 2006), http://www .military-geospatial-technology.com/article.cfm?DocID=1547 (quotation attributed to Peter Wegner, the AFRL responsive-space lead) (accessed 12 December 2006); Maryann Lawlor, “TacSat Delay Ignites Frustration,” Signal Connections 3, no. 9 (15 June 2006), http://www.afcea.org/signal/articles/templates/SIGNAL_Article_Template.asp ?articleid=1154&zoneid=188 (quotation attributed to Peter Wegner) (accessed 2 February 2007); and Michael Kleiman, “Responsive Space Demonstrator Ready to Roll,” Air Force Print News, 5 November 2006, http://www.af.mil/news/story.asp?storyID=123030853 (quotation attributed to Neal Peck, TacSat-2 program manager) (accessed 12 December 2006).
6. AFRL briefing, Dr. David Hardy, “TacSat Demo Status: Senior Leader Vector Check,” Washington, DC, 22 September 2004; and AFRL briefing, Col Rex Kiziah, “Joint Warfighting Space,” Schriever III War Game, Nellis AFB, NV, 8 February 2005.
7. Bruce Rolfsen, “Satellite in Works to Beam Battlefield Pictures to Troops,” Air Force Times, 13 November 2006, http://www.airforcetimes.com/legacy/new/0-AIR PAPER-2320736.php.
8. Guerriero, “Tactical Satellites,” 27.
The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University
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