SMDC History: 25 years since first 'Space War'

By Sharon Watkins Lang, USASMDC/ARSTRAT Historical OfficeJanuary 20, 2016

SMDC History: 25 years since first 'Space War'
Soldiers operate the small lightweight global positioning system receivers, or SLGRs, during Operation Desert Storm in 1991. The SLGR, which facilitated navigation in the open desert, was described in terms of volume and impact as the U.S. Army Space... (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

On Jan. 17, 1991, Operation Desert Shield transitioned to Operation Desert Storm. With the start of ground operations on Feb. 24, a new era for the military began as space and space technology first played an integral role in a military conflict.

Often described as the first space war, Desert Storm saw space technology affect multiple areas of airland operations -- position/navigation, weather, communications, imagery and tactical early missile attack warning. Although fairly new, the U.S. Army Space Command, or ARSPACE, was instrumental in affecting this change.

Crossing all lines was the support provided by the Defense Satellite Communications System Operations Centers, or DSCSOC, the AN/MSQ-114 detachments, and the Regional Space Support Centers, or RSSCs, a mission assumed by ARSPACE on Oct. 1, 1990.

The DSCSOC manage the joint tactical use of the Defense System Communications Satellites while the RSSCs provide payload and network planning for ground mobile forces in support of the unified and specified commanders. With satellites realigned to better serve the region, these Soldiers ensured that communications channels were available not only between the president, the Pentagon and the leadership in Saudi Arabia, but also between the brigades, divisions and corps in theater.

Personnel in the field received almost dedicated 24-hour service from the satellite system provided by ground terminals affixed to flat-bed trucks. Initially equipped with seven ground-mobile force terminals, the network grew to include at its peak 128 terminals in the field. Thus expanding satellite communications from the realm of the higher headquarters to include the smaller tactical units deployed throughout the region.

The DSCS would carry approximately 50 percent of all the communications theater. In recognition of their efforts during Desert Storm, the MSQ-114 Detachment located at Fort Detrick received the Army Superior Unit Award in January 1992.

As preparations began, officials lamented the availability of accurate maps of the region to plan effectively any operations. Multi-Spectral Imaging, or MSI, became an excellent tool for tactical planning. LANDSAT and the French SPOT imaging satellites were employed to create updated area maps, which were more accurate, provided broader coverage and allowed planners to initiate their efforts with "the best product available" even before they deployed.

In MSI, analysts superimposed satellite images, accurate from 10-30 meters or 1:25,000 scale, over the grid coordinates. The high resolution data allowed for planning of route and target identification; terrain analysis, such as water sources, soil type, trafficability; and sensor fusion.

With additional equipment deployed to the topographical units, updated maps were printed in theater as frequently as situations warranted -- obstacles, revised plans, etc. As one Army Space Institute report noted, "two thirds of the intelligence preparation of the battlefield can now be combined using as current information as the last satellite pass allows one month old LANDSAT imagery combed with weather satellite passes is providing a quantum leap in the ability of the commander to see his battlefield."

In addition to the MSI, the Army Space Demonstration Program brought a new commercial weather receiver capability to the troops in Saudi Arabia. One hundred WRAASE weather receivers were fielded in 1990 to all staff weather offices from corps to brigade. These small receivers brought high-resolution satellite weather imagery to the tactical units using data from all satellites, regardless of origin, covering the Persian Gulf area.

These receivers equipped with tracking antenna, which could also monitor sand storms, allowed users to employ latitude-longitude gridding, temperature evaluations, digital imagery file storage, color imagery enhancements and annotations.

In an introductory attempt to bring missile defense warning to the tactical commander, the Tactical Event Reporting System, or TERS, modified the Defense Support Program satellite system, a strategic asset developed in the 1970s and equipped with infrared sensors, to detect SCUD missile launches and estimate trajectories and impact areas.

The goal was to provide real-time, world-wide detection to tactical commanders. However, the TERS which was originally developed to detect and track Soviet long-range missile launches, was not easily adapted to short-range, low-flying and less bright infrared signatures. While the system could not provide specific vectors for Patriot air defense batteries, it was able to provide some warning to allied forces of impending missile impact.

However, alerts were sent to U.S. Space Command in Colorado first and then re-routed to the desert -- a delay which affected response times. The use of tactical ballistic missiles in the Persian Gulf and the need to eliminate deficiencies in the theater missile defense arena were recognized and immediately addressed by the Army Space community. The product was the Joint Tactical Ground Stations which has provided in-theater early-warning support since 1997.

Described by a former ARSPACE commander as perhaps "our single most significant contribution to Desert Storm", the small lightweight global positioning system receivers or SLGRs (pronounced sluggers) are the final piece for this review.

Distributed in the thousands, these small, four-pound, hand-held receivers, which could fit in the side pocket of the BDUs, easily brought space technology to the individual Soldier. Supported by a constellation of fifteen satellites, the SLGR permitted an ease of movement despite the region's barren terrain and few landmarks.

The SLGR navigation technology enabled the wide left sweep or "Hail Mary" plan which sped across the open desert avoiding Iraqi fixed defense and quickly drove forward deep into Iraq to attack and destroy the strategic reserve.

In addition to coordinating troop movements, the SLGRS were soon adapted to other purposes to include logistics resupply, field artillery emplacements, aviation navigation and later marking Iraqi minefields.

"The SLGR is working wonders and is the most popular piece of equipment in the desert," said General Binford Peay III, 101st Airborne Division commanding general in early 1991. "We use it for everything and it is used by everybody. Navigation is the singularly most difficult thing in the desert and the terrain features do not facilitate orientation. The entire area of operations is one big enemy avenue of approach and without the SLGR, firepower would be hampered and under-utilized."

With such resounding successes as the GPS, described as "the biggest combat multiplier on the battlefield", the ARSPACE Demonstration Program was a success. Since these initial steps which introduced the possibilities of space applications, the role of space and its significance has only grown. Without realizing it, we have all become more dependent upon space technology. In fact, today space is so much a part of everyday life, for Soldier and civilian alike, that it is essentially transparent.

Related Links: