WASHINGTON – They aren’t much on sound and fury, but the Pentagon’s constellation of satellites whirring around in space could be its most potent weapon in an attack on Iraq.
From 11,000 miles up, 24 global-positioning system, or GPS, satellites would guide Air Force planes and smart bombs and help the Navy launch Tomahawk cruise missiles with deadly accuracy. Moreover, special heat-sensing satellites could detect the launch of Saddam Hussein’s Scud missiles and warn U.S. troops of an attack two minutes before they come under fire.
“Space systems don’t grab a lot of attention, don’t grab a lot of headlines,” said Maj. Gen. Gerald Perryman, commander of Air Force space operations and a 1970 graduate of Texas A&M University.
“But make no mistake, we would no sooner send our troops into harm’s way without space capabilities than we would put them into combat armed with sticks and stones. ”
The system consists basically of three satellite systems: GPS, Defense Support Program Satellites DSP and the Milstar Satellite Communications system, which transmits high-priority military data. GPS, the heart of the operation, consists of 24 satellites, up from 16 available during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
The satellites orbit Earth every 12 hours emitting continuous navigational signals. With special GPS receivers, U.S. forces can calculate precisely where they are or where they want to go. The military can map enemy positions or determine the exact spot to target a bomb.
Experts say the system is so exact that it can calculate the position of an enemy missile site within a few feet.
The new Joint Standoff Weapon, an Air Force and Navy program, uses GPS to help locate its targets. Dallas-based Raytheon TI developed and produced the JSOW, which is now in the Persian Gulf and available for use.
GPS is best known for helping guide cruise missiles. They are fired from Navy ships and planes and can hit a target nearly dead-on from 1,000 to 1,500 miles away. The system can also be used to rescue troops in trouble or pilots who bail out of downed aircraft.
Each Air Force plane is equipped with a special radio, the GPS Hook 112, which will make a “burst transmission” telling rescuers the exact location of a downed pilot.
“This would have made a rescue, for instance, of Capt. O’Grady much, much easier,” Perryman said. O’Grady, an Air Force F-16 pilot, was shot down over Bosnia in 1995. He eluded Serbian forces for several days before a Marine unit plucked him out of a forest clearing.
The Defense Support system uses five satellites with infrared sensors that detect heat from missile and booster plumes. During Operation Desert Storm, DSP warned civilian populations and coalition forces in Israel and Saudi Arabia of Scud launches directed at them.
The final link for Pentagon space operations is the Milstar satellite. It transmits information between commanders, ships, submarines, aircraft and ground stations.
Not everyone is happy with the Pentagon’s growing dependence on space systems. Some experts say Air Force and Army operations would be put at risk if an enemy found a way to jam signals from those satellites, attack them in space or attack the ground facilities that control them.
John E. Pike, head of space policy at the Federation of American Scientists, a private group in Washington, said the Pentagon has become dependent on satellites, but few countries would be able to attack the system.
Iraq, he said, would be unable to defeat Pentagon space systems. The United States, as it did in 1991, would probably take out any Iraqi satellite dish capable of sending jamming signals into space. Saddam Hussein, Pike said, would have a better chance of damaging Pentagon space systems if he found a way to strike U.S. facilities.
“The satellites are far away and hard to get to,” he said. “But I could think of four of five places in California and Colorado that an attack on would at least disrupt the system for a while. ”
The Air Force Space Warfare Center is at Falcon Air Force Base near Colorado Springs, Colo. U.S. Space Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command are at a facility built inside Cheyenne Mountain, near Colorado Springs.
It is the former NORAD Combat Operations Center, built in 1961 to hide ballistic missile command operations during the Cold War. Perryman, who briefed reporters on the satellites at the Pentagon on Tuesday, would say only that the Air Force has been working on ways to defend the system.
He declined to give significant details. “We have paid particular attention to making sure that our space capabilities will get to the war fighter,” he said. “With the case of GPS, that’s a system that flies at an altitude of 11,000 miles. That’s a long way from Earth. And so, by that very fact, that altitude, it is removed from normal ways of attacking systems. ” Perryman added that the Air Force is looking at ways to defend satellites from jamming.
One way, experts said, would be for the Pentagon to use more than one way to get information to its commanders from space.
“The opportunity to negate our use of GPS is something our planners must consider when they decide how best to strike a target,” he said.
February 21, 1998 Edition:
FINAL AM Section: NEWS Page 1:
Author: Michael D. Towle; Star-Telegram Writer – Washington Bureau
Copyright 1998 Star-Telegram, Inc.