Satellite communication key to victory in Iraq

Despite a great many predictions to the contrary, the U.S.-led war in Iraq in 2003 was over even more quickly than its predecessor a dozen years before. And while proponents of ground forces can credibly make their argument against air power strategists, neither can deny the dominant role played, for the first time, by space-based assets.

Aug 1st, 2003
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By J.R. Wilson

WASHINGTON — Despite a great many predictions to the contrary, the U.S.-led war in Iraq in 2003 was over even more quickly than its predecessor a dozen years before. And while proponents of ground forces can credibly make their argument against air power strategists, neither can deny the dominant role played, for the first time, by space-based assets.

The U.S. military has long been developing its capabilities in space, from global positioning systems (GPS) to precision-guided munitions to communications to surveillance to weather monitoring. However it was over the Iraqi desert in early 2003 even more than Afghanistan a year earlier, that U.S. power was first expressed its dominance from space. At the same time, major lessons were learned that will be applied to the next generation of military satellites now being prepared for service by the end of this decade.

"It's a combined and joint integrated operation, with space supporting all the other forces and activities," says Brig. Gen.-select Larry James, who served as Senior Space Officer in the Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC). "We will continue to be able to integrate and act on that data better than anyone else and just get better at it."

The CAOC, located at Prince Sulton Air Base in Saudi Arabia, was the combined air and space component operations planning, execution, and assessment center for the Combined Forces Air Component (CFAC) Command, providing, according to CENTCOM, "rapid reaction, positive control, coordination and deconfliction of weapon systems".


The U.S. Combined Air Operations Center at Prince Sulton Air Base in Saudi Arabia, pictured above, demonstrated for the first time the nation's military dominance of space.
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"Organizationally, this was the first time the CFAC commander was designated as the space coordination authority," says Maj. Gen. Judd Blaisdell, director of space operations and integration for the Air Force Staff. "What that means is (Lt. Gen. Michael 'Buzz' Moseley), within the CAOC in the desert, was able to fully utilize the space resources available to him as he saw fit. Previously, we would have a division of responsibility to better utilize space assets because we had done it like that before. This gave us an opportunity to synchronize space as never before. We were inside the enemy's decision cycle - and space allowed that to occur."

A primary mission area for space systems was missile warning, especially in light of Iraq's use of Scud missiles against both Israel and Saudi Arabia during Desert Storm.

"We integrated a multitude of sensors to give us the best possible data for missile warning - ground-based radar (GBR), Aegis, airborne, and space-based sensors — bringing all that data into the CAOC was something we had never done before. That was a great success story, especially for the smaller missiles," James says. "One lesson learned was we didn't really have a fusion capability to present one picture to the operator, so we need to improve our ability to fuse multi-sensor information to create that common picture for the operator to use.

"The other piece of that, which we did exactly right, was building very robust multipath networks out to the various sites that required the warning information. That was probably the most robust missile warning system we had ever created. Satcom (satellite communications) was critical to that; we used microwave to reach some areas, but it really depended on where we needed to go and what we needed to get good, redundant communications into those nodes."

Another lesson learned for future improvement was the need to better coordinate incoming space-based information with real-time battlespace events in an automated way to create an immediate feedback mechanism. James says that would begin with data available in the CAOC - the events and targets planned — then integrating that with satellite data to produce a correlated, real-time battle damage assessment (BDA) picture, something he says has not yet been achieved.

A major concern of U.S. forces going into Iraq was the weather, which was about to get a lot hotter, along with wind storms whipping desert sand into equipment and soldiers. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) used information gathered by two Polar Operational Environmental Satellites (POES), part of the Defense

Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP), to create weather forecasts and maps that were transmitted to forward units four times a day. That involved not only dust storms, but also information on oil fires and smoke, which Iraq used as weapons.

"Weather is a key factor in any military operation and DMSP is probably the best weather-sensing capability we have, commercial or military," James says. "And the information we get from it is critical to our forecasting and assessments."

Even with improved systems during the 1990s, the military has not become independent of civilian satellites to handle the immense quantity of data — especially communications — required in an increasingly digitized and network-centric battle theater. At some points during Operation Iraqi Freedom, about 60 percent of the communications and data transmitted by the U.S. and its allies went through commercial satellites. Overall, 31 military satcom terminals (with an average bandwidth of about 1.5 megabits per second and 27 commercial satcom terminals (each carrying about 6 megabits per second) were used to support CFAC operations. The bulk of the commercial was C-band, with smaller Navy ships using INMARSAT's L-band.

The key, James says, is assessing what must go over military satellites and what can be pushed through commercial channels. "We have done some good things with military satcom since Desert Storm. We didn't have Milstar then; we've doubled our DSCS (Defense Satellite Communications System) bandwidth, primarily with upgraded satellites to utilize new technology in the service life extension program (SLEP); our UHF capacity has been increased about 35 percent in the past year using band-assigned multiple access, so we have a more robust architecture supporting CENTCOM (Central Command)," he says.

"We are certainly going to expand the military satcom capacity with WGF (Wideband Gap Filler), which is equivalent to about 16 DSCS satellites in bandwidth. And with increased military (satellite) bandwidth, I could envision requirements for commercial bandwidth being less, but if military bandwidth demand increases as well, the balance may not change much."

Jointly funded by the Air Force and Army, a half-dozen WGF satellites, each with a 14-year design life and supporting a throughput data rate of 2.4 to 3.6 gigabits per second per satellite, will begin going into service in 2004-05, providing both X-band and Ka-band coverage, with a digital channelizer and switcher that can key the uplink frequency to match any downlink frequency.

Every military satellite system now in service is scheduled for replacement, not just DSCS.

The Navy's Ultra High Frequency Follow-On (UFO) constellation and the older Fleet Satellite (FLTSAT) system — currently supplemented by commercial L-band communications at sea from the Intelligence Satellite (INTELSAT) and International Maritime Satellite (INMARSAT) — will be replaced by the Mobile User Objective System (MUOS), scheduled for IOC in 2007 and full operational capability no later than 2013. MUOS will provide global narrowband (64Kb/s and below) satellite connectivity for voice, video, and data for U.S. and allied services using a constellation of three geosynchronous satellites. Requirements for MUOS include being able to penetrate two layers of jungle canopy and communicate during extreme weather conditions.

While Milstar came into existence after Desert Storm and played a significant role in Operation Iraqi Freedom (the last one in the series was launched earlier this year), it, too, is scheduled for replacement. The five Milstars, originally designed to meet Cold War requirements, will be replaced by two Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) satellites, the first planned for launch in 2006.

AEHF has been in a near-continuous state of flux as a program (it was originally to have involved four satellites). Compatible with Milstar, each satellite will have as much as 12 times the total throughput, with single-user data rates of up to 8 megabits per second.

Another improvement in the system, which Blaisdell says is more than just a satellite replacement effort, is the Space Based Infra-Red Surveillance (SBIRS) system, which also has undergone significant reorganization in recent months.

"SBIRS, for the future, will provide us with an opportunity to get systems that are quicker, don't burn as hot or long, are faster," Blaisdell says. "The enemy continues to improve his systems, so this allows us not only to have the ability to detect on the battlefield, but also provide characterization of enemy missiles in flight."

Further down the line, the military is considering such emerging capabilities as laser communications (lasercom), which could provide 5 to 10 gigabits per second, rather than the 5 to10 megabits of current technologies.

"There is nothing we saw here that would change what we already were planning to do," James says of the post-Iraq evolution of space-based assets. "If you look at GPS, we saw attempts by the Iraqis to jam it, but we already have programs in place for future GPS satellites to address that, with higher spot beams, for example. If you look at IR (infrared), we would like more capability there and we are planning just that. As we juggled different satcom capabilities, we can see WGF addressing that. In the big scheme, the programs we already are looking at would not have to change to address any lessons learned here, although there may be some technical details assessed regarding how to address those issues. But, overall, we're on track."

For the Navy, leased commercial bandwidth played a key role in meeting their constantly changing — and growing — communications demands during the build-up to and through the Iraq war.

"Once we bought the (commercial) leases, they could be moved from ship to ship, transmit from one satellite to another and anything else they needed to do on a day-to-day basis, which was necessary due to the number of ships coming in and out of the region," says Michelle Bailey, PM-176 (Navy Satellite Communications Services - 2GHz and up) at the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command (SPAWAR) in San Diego.

That proved especially valuable as circumstances required SPAWAR to accelerate the installation and checkout of satcom systems for three battlegroups deployed to the region.

"For the next generation of satellites, the bar has been raised. We're not going to require less communications capability tomorrow than we had today — if anything it will be more and we'll require it faster. And I don't think our level of effort is going to slack off. By successfully accelerating three battlegroups, next time we may try to accelerate six. I don't see us being told to slow down; I see us being told 'that was great, now go faster and do more'.

"I need bandwidth on demand. Very often we tie up circuits that are not used and that bandwidth is wasted. I'm looking at making it easier on the sailor to switch between one satellite and the next; it should be transparent to the sailor what satellite he's on, what bandwidth he's using. All the technical stuff should be hidden from the sailor because they have more important things to do than figure out where they are, where the satellites are and do a lot of manual adjustments. That's what I'm emphasizing for the follow-ons. That is somewhat of a change in the plan. We were looking at flexible bandwidth — now we are running after that capability."

Not all the movement was at sea or just involved licenses, however. With the available UHF bands oversubscribed (and not available from commercial sources) and no time to build and launch new satellites, SPAWAR had to come up with another solution.

"We had to take in-orbit assets that had been in a mothball status and make them available to in-theater users," explains Cmdr. Greg Hammond, UFO assistant program manager. "Moving satellites takes fuel and has to be done very carefully so they don't get lost. We were able to do that in a very streamlined timeline. We moved satellites into the operational areas from mothball status. But it wasn't just moving the sat, it was reconfiguring the whole communications infrastructure to allow this new asset to come in and be usable. We needed warfighter involvement to make that happen."

STRATCOM, which owns all satellite communications services, helped SPAWAR understand the required configuration, the location, and when it was needed.

"The satellite had been in a mothball status for eight years," Hammond says, adding it was launched active in the early 1990s, then reassigned as an on-orbit spare. "We do system checks while they are in that status, so we knew it was alive and well. But the configuration of the channel plan changes based on where users are located worldwide. So to bring a new asset in, you have to change the whole channel plan. UHF is very limited. A spacecraft is built to handle x-number of users and when they overlap, you have to turn certain channels off. So we had to reconfigure this new asset."

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