A debate is going on in Washington about what, if any, new capabilities the U.S. military should develop in space, including, possibly, weapons targeted at satellites, and space-based weapons targeted at Earth. But while that remains unresolved, the U.S. Air Force is working to make the most of capabilities it has, and can develop under the current policy to help U.S. troops around the world. VOA Defense Correspondent Al Pessin reports on how troops in places like Iraq and Afghanistan are benefiting from space-based capabilities.
Daniel Leaf was a U.S. Air Force colonel in the spring of 1999, leading a group of fighter jets against Serbian targets in Kosovo as part of a NATO operation.
"As I came to trust space capabilities, I fundamentally altered the way I employed the F-16," said Mr. Leaf. "It made me more effective, less likely to cause collateral damage, a better flight-lead, protecting my wingman, all because of space. It was a tactical epiphany."
The colonel realized that space-based systems, like the now well-known Global Positioning Satellites (GPS), were better at finding his targets than he was. Those systems could direct his aircraft to the target, freeing him to look for anti-aircraft fire and see to the safety of the other fighters in his group. He got involved in the attack only later in the flight, confirming the system's information, making final adjustments and deploying the weapon.
Now, as a three-star general, Daniel Leaf is vice-commander of the U.S. Air Force Space Command, and he considers it one of his primary responsibilities to protect and enhance those space-based systems that help not only today's fighter pilots, but also their U.S. military colleagues on the land and sea.
"A soldier, or marine, or airman on the ground in Iraq benefits from space capabilities by being able to see the enemy, being able to communicate their plans and intentions, and request support via satellite communications, [and] knowing precisely where they are, through [the] Global Positioning System," he added.
Space-based capabilities are part of a growing network of information systems that are increasingly being made accessible to individual troops on the streets of Iraq and in the mountains of Afghanistan.
A U.S. Army program is distributing 600 hand-held computers to small units of soldiers in Iraq, and is building a local network to connect them to the worldwide reach of Global Positioning, communications and intelligence satellites. The system is supposed to be up and running by the end of August.
Lieutenant General Keith Alexander, who is in charge of the project, says the new technology will enable troops to know exactly where they are, and how to get to safety, if they come under attack. The general says it will help them find targets more precisely, get information about new targets, and conduct all sorts of operations more effectively.
"Let us say that we are out, and we stop into a market, and we see three people, and we are talking to those three people, and we get their names," said Mr. Alexander. "The first one, his name is Abu 'X.' We put his name into the system, and the first thing we want is for that to hit [get to] the battalion, and the battalion can be working while we're talking to him. And if they say, 'No, we have no information on Abu X,' what we would like to be assured of is that the reason we have no information is that he is OK to let go, versus, 'Oh, it was a bad guy, but we did not know it locally, but they knew it over here [at the battalion].'"
Another new project involves using balloons to carry satellite-type equipment into low space altitudes. General Leaf, at Air Force Space Command, says his scientists and engineers are working on how to protect such balloons from the harsh environment of near-space, and, potentially, from enemy attacks. The general hopes that, someday, space-based sensors will even help troops find roadside bombs, which have been so deadly in attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
General Leaf says, in addition to using space to help the troops, the United States works to prevent its adversaries from using space against U.S. troops.
"Why would we put Kevlar [armor] on our troops, up-armor their Humvees, and then allow an adversary to know where they are and what they're doing from space sensors?" he asked.
That raises concerns about any sort of attack on other nations' satellites, but the general says that is not necessarily what he is talking about. He says jamming radio signals or attacking ground stations can be just as effective, and far less difficult, expensive and controversial.
During the invasion of Iraq, there was at least one example of that.
"The Iraqis tried to deny GPS-signal, in a military sense, through the use of Global Positioning System jammers around Baghdad. And we attacked those, on the ground, with 2,000 pound [900 kilogram] GPS-aided bombs, in a little twist of irony," he recalled.
General Leaf says, for all the concern about the military uses of space, he believes space-based capabilities result in less destructive wars.
"Without space, without those capabilities, we will be more likely to have to fight, because we will know less. When we fight, we will put more of our resources and more of our people at risk. It will take longer to accomplish our objectives. And we will have to destroy more property and resources, and we will have to kill more people, if we do not ensure that we have space capabilities," he explained. "Space does not make war less tragic, but it certainly makes us more effective, more precise, and limits the tragic destruction that's inevitable in war."
In addition, the general notes that space capabilities developed for the military have proven to have numerous civilian applications, from cars that use the Global Positioning System for navigation and to discourage theft, to farmers who use imaging satellites to help decide when to harvest their crops.