U.S. Army space support teams have been busy of late with an agenda that includes supporting combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and playing a key role in a recent exercise simulating a conflict on the Korean peninsula.
North Korea’s vast arsenal of ballistic missiles poses a major threat to U.S. troops on the peninsula, making the missile-warning satellite ground stations operated by Army personnel in the area critical , according to Lt. Col. Eric Henderson, deputy commander of the Army’s 1st Space Brigade, which includes support teams that help deliver space capabilities to ground forces.
The transportable Joint Tactical Ground Stations (JTAGS) receive, process and distribute data from U.S. Air Force missile warning satellites, Henderson said.
“JTAGS has a huge role for in-theater missile warning,” Henderson said. “It’s paramount for success that JTAGS is successful.”
The Korea exercise, dubbed Ulchi Focus Lens, ran from Aug. 22 through Sept. 2, and featured joint operations of U.S. and South Korean forces.
In its July newsletter, Army Forces Command said Ulchi Focus Lens featured the largest computer-simulated command and control work of any military exercise. Some 5,000 U.S. troops based in South Korea and another 5,000 based in other locations around the world took part, according to an Aug. 18 news release issued by U.S. Pacific Command.
The Ulchi Focus Lens scenarios are classified, but the Forces Command newsletter said U.S. and South Korean forces initially were to repel an attack and then focus on offensive operations.
With a major base facility in South Korea, U.S. forces likely would be less dependent on certain space assets during a conflict there than in a place like Afghanistan, Henderson said.
But space would still play an important role , Henderson said in an Aug. 24 interview. Troops in the Korean theater could use terrestrial networks to talk to each other in many cases, but still would need satellite links to communicate with decision-makers back in the United States, he said.
U.S. forces also would need detailed imagery products, including up-to-date terrain maps created using multispectral and hyperspectral data, Henderson said. The information would help U.S. forces figure out which areas could be traversed by vehicles and where land is too damp. That, in turn, would help in the planning of troop movements and civilian evacuation routes , he said.
Army space support teams also likely would be called upon during a Korean conflict to monitor the accuracy of GPS navigation signals in the region, Henderson said. Such teams are trained to predict periods during which GPS signals in the area are not accurate enough to ensure successful use of precision-guided weapons or so-called blue force tracking devices used to identify the locations of friendly forces , he said.
Other items on the Army space support agenda include assisting Iraqi officials seeking to rebuild the war-torn country and combat insurgents. The Army teams are taking advantage of the unclassified nature of commercial satellite imagery to share those pictures with Iraqi forces to help them plan patrol routes, he said.
The teams also can use satellite imagery to help protect important infrastructure like oil pipelines from sabotage, Henderson said. Multispectral imagery is useful in locating areas where oil has leaked into the ground, he said, noting that insurgents might cut open a pipeline and cover the damaged spot with dirt to prevent it from being detected.
The space support teams also are using satellite imagery to help local officials search for mass graves of those killed during Saddam Hussein’s reign as Iraqi dictator, Henderson said.
The space support teams are not exclusively dedicated to military and related operations, Henderson said.
In 2002, for example, teams used JTAGS to direct firefighters towards the hottest spots in the Hayman Forest Fire that burned over large swaths in Colorado, he said. In addition, multispectral and hyperspectral satellite images were used to determine which areas were dry and thus at the greatest risk of being engulfed in flames, he said.