Editorial: Bringing Space to Bear In Afghanistan

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The observation by a U.S. Air Force officer that U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan are not taking full advantage of available space capabilities highlights a key advantage of commercial satellite services. It also underscores the burdens of excessive classification restrictions on government-owned systems and the need for a campaign to broaden awareness of what space can bring to the fight.

Lt. Col. Tom Single, the former chief of space operations for NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, said secrecy often keeps coalition forces in Afghanistan from discussing space capabilities and that many of the 43 participating nations do not factor space systems into their warfighting strategies. The insurgents they are fighting, meanwhile, tend to be relatively savvy in the use of space systems, both for their own purposes and by their adversaries, Single said during a recent conference in Paris.

Lt. Col. Single said the secrecy problem is not limited to the U.S. military — an important point given the rapidly expanding space capabilities among NATO nations. Classification makes it difficult enough to share data with close allies; when 43 nations are involved — not even counting Afghanistan — it’s a major problem. Lt. Col. Single conceded that he had found himself reticent to discuss certain space capabilities with an Afghan officer in the room.

Part of the solution is greater use of commercial systems such as imagery-gathering satellites, which in recent years have grown both in number and sophistication and are of course unclassified. These include not only the high-resolution electro-optical satellites deployed by U.S. companies but radar satellites launched by the Canadians and Europeans. Radar satellites offer unique capabilities, among them the ability to make observations regardless of time of day or weather conditions.

For the most sophisticated government-owned space systems, classification and the burdens that come with it are a fact of life. But in many cases secrecy is taken too far; Lt. Col. Single said data were often marked secret simply because they came from a space system.

Perhaps commanders in Afghanistan with access to the space-based data are simply erring on the side of caution when it comes to sharing, which is understandable. But that doesn’t make it acceptable, especially when lives are at stake in a place like Afghanistan, where a lack of modern infrastructure puts a premium on space-based services including |communications.

NATO commanders engaged in Afghanistan need to be clear on exactly what data can permissibly be shared with which coalition members under current classification restrictions. If the system involved is not classified, there seems little justification for not sharing data that could allow coalition forces to operate more efficiently.

In addition, each NATO member should continuously scrutinize classification restrictions on its space systems with a view toward loosening or removing those that are no longer appropriate in this day and age. Although classification in many instances remains necessary, regardless of the operational inconveniences it creates, in many others it has been overtaken by events including the proliferation of technologies that were once the exclusive realm of superpowers. The purpose of classification is to protect sources and methods that allow the military to operate more efficiently and thus save resources, including lives. Excessive classification can have the opposite effect.

NATO members with space assets also need to develop policies and specific operational procedures for sharing space-based data among themselves and with other coalition forces. In parallel, they must make a concerted effort to educate other coalition partners on space capabilities, in much the same way that the U.S. military has worked over the years to promote space awareness among its ranks. As Lt. Col. Single succinctly noted, “Coalition warfare is here to stay. Your entire system needs to be designed for it.”