troops deployed in and recently have seen improvements in their access to military space assets as a result of procedural improvements made by the U.S. Air Force, according to a senior Air Force space official.
Air Force Col. John Riordan, who served as director of space forces at Air Force Central Command, said the service is consistently meeting its goal of responding to troops’ space support requests in as little as four hours and in no more than 24 hours. Troops in theater have become more aware of space-based capabilities and now are accustomed to having the imagery, communications, navigation and weather prediction that satellites can provide.
Riordan returned last month from a 13-month stint in southwest where he was responsible for coordinating requests for strategic and tactical space-based assistance with the at Vandenberg Air Force Base, , which operates military satellites. Now serving as the Air Force’s director of space operations in the Pentagon, he spoke with reporters July 8.
Riordan credits the ‘s top officer, Lt. Gen. William Shelton, with improving processes over the past several years to disseminate information from space assets to troops on the ground in a more timely manner.
“When I arrived a lot had been done to improve that responsiveness because of what Gen. Shelton had done,” Riordan said. “If complaints came, they didn’t come from the space side, in terms of reactiveness. There are certain things that had to be coordinated with U.S. Strategic Command, but 100 times out of 100, the priority was the war, so I never had an issue with it when I was there. I think we’ve come a long way from that reactive nature to what we’re doing.”
Lengthening the tour of duty for the region’s director of space forces also has improved the integration of space-based capabilities into military operations in the two war zones, he said. Lt. Gen. Gary North, Central Command’s Air Component commander, made Riordan the first director of space forces to serve a term longer than four months, which Riordan said allowed for more continuity and a better relationship with the troops.
Bandwidth remains a pressing need in the southwest region as the number of data-intensive platforms used in military operations continues to grow. Predator unmanned aerial vehicles are providing the much-desired full-motion video that is driving much of the demand. The need also is growing for satellite applications, which perform region-specific tasks including crop management and poppy field eradication. But no matter how great the desire for capacity and no matter how much the government can provide, Riordan said the demand in the field likely will remain insatiable.
“It’s a prioritization issue,” he said. “Everybody wants more. If you give them 100, they’d like 200. So Congress and the president have to make their priorities and we’ll follow suit.”
Getting more unmanned aerial vehicles and more bandwidth to troops on the ground has been a point of contention between Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and the Air Force. Gates pressed the service to get more of each into the battlespace, and the Air Force resisted for several reasons including not wanting each branch of the military to operate its own unmanned aerial vehicles, according to Loren Thompson, chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute in ,
In Riordan’ s view, space capabilities are doing a lot for the military today, but new technologies such as Internet routing in space will make it possible to do even more. U.S. Strategic Command has a program under way to put an experimental Internet routing payload on a commercial satellite to be launched by Intelsat of Bermuda and Washington. Riordan emphasized that commercial partnerships like this, and international partnerships, such as the deal with to buy into the Wideband Global Satcom system, must be an integral part of the military’s plans for the future.
“Personally, the Internet routing in space excited me a great deal,” Riordan said. “Being able to walk anywhere on the Earth and get an Internet connection would be just fantastic, and I don’t think anyone who’s used the Internet would not like to have that.
“We have to work together because this is a very expensive business, and I think in the efforts we have here in  and worldwide you will see a much more joint approach to space.”