Satellites at war: A week of U.S.-Iran tensions sum up military reliance on space
It’s an often repeated truth that the United States’ armed forces are greatly dependent on space-based assets for almost every facet of military operations.
The U.S. military drone strikes that killed Iranian Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani on Jan. 3 and Iran’s retaliatory ballistic missile attack on U.S. bases in Iraq a few days later were a stark illustration of the critical role of satellites.
Satellites in space serve as global eyes, ears, networks, and timekeepers for U.S. forces. The U.S. Air Force drones that fired the missiles and the weapons themselves were guided by GPS satellites. The post-strike assessment of damage and casualties was enabled by remote sensing satellites. When Iran responded with a barrage of short-range missiles aimed at U.S. installations in Iraq, U.S. early warning spacecraft that detect the heat signature generated by a missile launch alerted operators on the ground.
Communications satellites — a mix of U.S. government-owned and commercial assets — allow forces to talk, pass data and execute command and control. Weather satellites provide detailed meteorological information so commanders can gauge the impact of weather on operations.
U.S. military operations in the Middle East are overseen by U.S. Central Command, based in Tampa, Florida. But the responsibility to ensure that satellites are ready and able to provide services to U.S. forces falls on U.S. Space Command, the military’s newest combatant command currently headquartered at Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado.
“Our space assets are fully integrated and synchronized with all joint operations, to include U.S. Central Command, as space capabilities are crucial to success on the battlefield.” U.S. Space Command spokesman Col. David Westover said in a statement to SpaceNews.
“U.S. Space Command supports all global missions by providing space effects directly to our warfighters,” he said. The command operates missile warning and detection capabilities “to protect the nation, our deployed personnel and allied forces,” said Westover.
It’s worth looking back at how satellites became such key assets to the military. A report by the RAND Corp. notes that the Eisenhower administration put satellites in orbit in response to the need for a capability to monitor military developments in the Soviet Union, particularly nuclear forces. For the first two decades of the Space Age, the vast majority of satellites, both American and Soviet, were devoted to strategic missions — reconnaissance, surveillance, communications, and environmental monitoring.
But in the closing decades of the Cold War, the United States started using space-based services to support conventional military operations. Over time, space became a critical linchpin, a trend that became evident during the 1991 Persian Gulf War when national strategic assets were tasked to support conventional combat operations on a large scale.
“Reconnaissance satellites were re-tasked from strategic missions, and their products were made more widely available to theater commanders and their staffs,” the RAND report says. “Data from strategic surveillance satellites were brought to bear to provide warning of Scud missile attacks and support coalition efforts to hunt down and destroy the launchers.”
Military communications satellites, originally designed to support command and control of nuclear forces, were moved and reconfigured to provide bandwidth to conventional combat units. And when that capacity was fully subscribed, the Department of Defense leased channels on commercial satellites.
“The Persian Gulf War was a threshold event in U.S. military space operations,” the report says. “Having discovered the vast potential of space to support conventional military operations in future conflicts, the U.S. defense community began concerted efforts to modify existing space systems and develop new ones to support tactical users. In the years that followed, a wide array of innovative technologies was developed employing data from space-based assets.”
After GPS achieved full operational capability in 1995 with 24 satellites on orbit, a whole new class of precision weapons emerged, from gravity bombs to cruise missiles, using GPS data to guide them to their targets. In addition, military vehicles on land, in the air and at sea began using GPS systems for navigation.
Sandra Erwin covers military space for SpaceNews. She is a veteran national security journalist and former editor of National Defense magazine.
“On National Security” appears in every issue of SpaceNews magazine. This column ran in the Jan. 20, 2020 issue.