U.S. Officer: Secrecy Among Coalition Forces Hinders Use of Space Assets in Afghanistan

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PARIS — The 40-plus nations taking part in NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan are often in the dark about what space assets are available to them and are too often denied access to space-derived intelligence, according to the former chief of ISAF space operations.

U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Tom Single, who this year returned from five months in Kabul trying to raise ISAF troops’ awareness of what satellites can bring to the war effort in Afghanistan, said secrecy often keeps coalition team members from speaking about space-related topics with each other.

Just as striking, he said, is the fact that many coalition members — the United States being the obvious exception — have not integrated satellites into their thinking about how to manage a war in a nation where communications by other means is often impossible.

“In some cases, insurgents were much more savvy in using space than the coalition forces — because they have to be,” Single said here during the April 20 Milspace 2010 conference organized by SMi Group of London.

Single, an air and space strategist at NATO’s Joint Air Power Competence Centre in Kelkar, Germany, has long been outspoken about the need for NATO to integrate space-enabled capabilities more fully into its operations. But the organization has faced budgetary and other difficulties in getting this done.

Being stationed in Afghanistan reinforced his assessment that only the United States and a few of its allies have begun pushing space capabilities out of the strategic command centers and into the field for troops to use.

Not the least of the problems is the continued secrecy that surrounds some space operations, especially in Afghanistan, where suspicion of Afghan troops remains despite increased integration between Afghan and NATO forces, he said.

“U.S. space operators are not trained in how to be integrated into a coalition environment,” Single said. “For example, the ISAF commander was asked to help minimize collateral damage” to Afghan civilians. “How do we make use of classified space capabilities in a coalition? I certainly didn’t talk a lot about space when the Afghan colonel was there.”

Even other ISAF nations were denied access to space-based intelligence or assets that could affect coalition operations. “Due to classification levels, we can’t share this with 44 nations, so we often worked these issues behind closed doors,” Single said. “Over-classification and releasability are the No. 1 challenges. Sometimes, just because a piece of information came from a space system, it was marked ‘Secret.’ And this is true not only of U.S. systems but of others as well.”

He added that few, if any, of the military satellites owned by European NATO members have been tasked for use by ISAF.

Given its lack of infrastructure and severe weather, Afghanistan should be an ideal arena for making maximum use of satellites of almost every kind: radar observation spacecraft to determine snow thickness and predict when roads will be flooded, optical satellites to ensure that a bridge is still functional after heavy rain, and wide-field multispectral imaging spacecraft to predict crop yields for drug interdiction, among others.

Single said he had expected that the Afghan population and the Afghan armed forces would be ill-equipped to use space technology, including hand-held GPS terminals, given the nation’s general economic condition. What surprised him is how few ISAF nations have placed space systems into the hands of their ground troops.

But if the Afghan troops are not aware of what space systems can to for them, the insurgents that they and the ISAF troops are fighting appear to be learning fast.

“Our adversaries have become very savvy users of space,” Single said. “They are getting good at it, and they know how much we depend on it.”

The same is true in Somalia, he said, where pirates taking ships hostage for ransom have demonstrated their sophistication about which onboard systems to disable to avoid detection and capture.

One European defense official agreed with Single but said the road to sharing of space systems among coalition partners would be long. “Military satellites in Europe are designed for use only by the nation that owns the asset, or at best for bilateral use as part of an exchange agreement with another nation,” this official said.

Single proposed that ISAF forces with the most knowledge of space first learn how to share their assets among themselves. “If I am in Afghanistan and I want to access a French satellite, how do I do that?” he said. “Space needs to be integrated into NATO’s operational planning process. We need a NATO Space Operations Control Center, and we need to create a subset of NATO’s 28 member nations that are space-minded. Coalition warfare is here to stay. Your entire system needs to be designed for it.”