Commentary | Rethinking the Space Contribution in Rapid Response Ops

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The military operation in Libya is not yet over. It is too early for scholarly and learned lessons. But it is not too early to look at the tactical experiences and how those experiences presage changes to come. We have done an initial look at the overlap between the experience of the French and of the U.S. Marine Corps in the Libya operations and have discovered some significant overlaps in experience.

If we look at the congruence of the French and Marine experiences, several things can be highlighted.

First, the centrality of leveraging multiple bases in a littoral operation is significant. The French used several land bases and incorporated the sea base — whether the carrier or their amphibious ships — to work with land-based aircraft. The Marines used their land base largely to supply the sea-based air ops via Osprey transport.

Second, having the C4ISR — command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance — forward deployed with the pilot as the key decision maker is crucial to mission success. The classic U.S. Air Force Combined Air Operations Center system is challenged by what the Marines demonstrated in the operation; the French experience also challenges it.

If you have a long C4ISR chain, the information in a fluid and dynamic situation must be provided in a more timely fashion than a system built for 1991 air operations permits.

Third, new air capabilities make a significant difference. For the Marine Corps, the Osprey was the game changer in this operation. For the French, it was the new reconnaissance pods off of Rafale fighters.

Fourth, the dynamic targeting problem experienced by the French was also highlighted by the Marines’ experience. Getting accurate information from the ground is central to operations. The Navy-Marine team has a number of new capabilities being deployed or acquired that will enhance its ability to do such operations. The F-35B fighter will give the Marine Corps an integrated electronic warfare and C4ISR capability. The new LPD amphibious vessels have significant command and control capabilities. For the French, acquiring unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that could become wingmen for the Rafales would be important, and the role of the command and control capabilities of the new amphibious ships was underscored as well.

Fifth, the pickup quality of this operation may be more a norm than an aberration moving forward. If it is, then the old paradigm — significant planning and rollout of a fleet of C4ISR aircraft and capabilities — may be challenged by a new one: Deploying air assets that can be tapped by the sea base to shape an operation may become one of the key requirements.

Let us now hover over the C4ISR aspect a bit more. The French officers in charge of the operation were keenly aware of how little time they had to plan for it, and putting UAVs and combat aircraft over Libya prior to a U.N. authorization was not a great idea. French President Nicolas Sarkozy decided considerably before the U.N. resolution that France would operate in Libya, but to the French military leaders, this meant that the political rollout did not mesh with their planning requirements.

This discussion about the compared U.S.-France experiences in the Libyan intervention raises a question about space systems: Could they be used to provide a much more operationally reactive and efficient role, in the spirit of what is called in the U.S. Operationally Responsive Space (ORS)?

For instance, if such ORS systems had been available in Europe, France could have used the insertion of a small constellation of small satellites into low Earth orbit by quick launch to allow a couple-of-months cushion for planning, and then to provide efficient tactical support to the intervention.

Not only would such an ORS capability be essential to operations where the political dynamic is determinant but the military capability decisive, it also would enable significant manpower savings compared with UAVs. Contrary to the common wisdom, UAVs are not cheap; they are vulnerable to ground fire and cyber-attacks; they require significant manpower to support an “unmanned” asset; and of course they cannot be used before an official green light since they operate in the airspace of a sovereign

country. Once the satellites are launched, the manpower support is minimal to deliver the capability. And their intelligence information can be downloaded directly to the cockpits of the pilots, who then, after initial destruction of enemy capabilities, can transition to dynamic targeting.

Does such an approach make sense in Europe, where responsive space is up to now just a nice concept, inspired by the (slow) progress of the United States in this direction, exemplified by the launch of TacSat-4 on Sept. 27? Are not the existing French and European space reconnaissance assets sufficient to prepare an intervention like the one in Libya?

An ORS capability would be a very valuable complement because the main issue is not the strategic intelligence but the tactical input to the commanders and pilots in the field, which has to be put in place, tested and exploited before the beginning of the operations. A constellation of a few small satellites, launched on demand and injected in very low altitude orbits tailored to provide the best coverage of the countries of operations, would add enormously to the efficiency of the combat system.

Could Europe afford such a new capability, at a time of financial crisis and increasing budgetary constraints? Are there not more urgent priorities for defense and space systems? We think that, considering the new geopolitical landscape, ORS systems deserve to become a new priority in Europe. The technical and industrial capabilities are there: A company like small satellite specialist Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. certainly could build what could be called “satellites on the shelf,” ready for on-demand launches; and concepts of the Airborne Micro Launcher, already considered by France, Germany and Spain (to be validated by a technological demonstrator called Aldebaran, using a Rafale), could pave the way to a European responsive small launcher.

One also may wonder, at a time when the issue of low-cost space systems is crucial, if ORS could not be a great opportunity for Europe to put in place new approaches to develop small responsive space launchers and satellites rapidly and cheaply.

The world is changing in an accelerated way. New military challenges like the Libyan intervention call for new ways to operate, with focus on local command and control, and tailored tactical means. ORS systems could be one of such means, which Europe certainly could develop with or without the U.S.

Robbin Laird has worked for many years on command and control issues for the services and is the co-founder of Second Line of Defense, which deals with the evolution of security and military capabilities ( Alain Dupas is an international consultant and author on space, defense and high technology.