Space domain critical to combat operations since Desert Storm

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Munitions specialists from the 23rd Tactical Fighter Wing at England Air Force Base, La., load 30 mm rounds of ammunition into an A-10A Thunderbolt II attack aircraft for its GAU-8/A Avenger cannon before a sortie in support of Operation Desert Storm in early 1991. (Air Force photograph)
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This year marks the 30-year anniversary of Operation Desert Storm. Due to the Defense Department’s successful use of space-based capabilities during the conflict, many experts consider Desert Storm to have been the first space war.

Many of the space capabilities initially deployed at the time, such as the Global Positioning System, have become vital components in how the United States conducts military operations. 

Space Force Lt. Gen. B. Chance Saltzman, deputy chief of Space Operations, March 19 discussed the role the space domain played during conflicts and how that technology has evolved over the last 30 years at a Brookings Institution event.

A B-52G Stratofortress bomber from the Air Force’s 1708th Bomb Wing takes off on a mission during Operation Desert Storm in early 1991. (Air Force photograph)

During Desert Storm, in early 1991, commanders were able to keep track of the Iraqi army maneuvering through a sandstorm through the use of GPS, something that could not have occurred in previous conflicts, he said. Saltzman said he joined the Air Force the year after Desert Storm, but he was mentored by many of the leaders involved in that war.

GPS, which uses satellites to pinpoint location, also enabled the use of precision munitions, which had a devastating effect on the Iraqi army — “both physically — because we were hitting the enemy — and mentally because they had no idea how we were able to track them through the weather, through the night,” he said.

Satellite communications during Desert Storm also enabled about 50 percent of the communications networks that were critical to command and control, he said.

Since Desert Storm, space-based capabilities have dramatically improved, Saltzman said. “If there’s a missile launched on the surface of the Earth, we know about it.”

An Air Force 401st Tactical Fighter Wing F-16C Fighting Falcon aircraft refuels from a KC-135 Stratotanker aircraft as another F-16 stands by during Operation Desert Storm, Feb. 1, 1991. (Air Force photograph)

The biggest change since Desert Storm is that the space domain is no longer a benign environment, he said. Adversaries realize that they cannot take on the U.S. military in direct combat, so they’ve decided to use space as a low-cost way to gain an asymmetric advantage.

“Now, we have a space force that’s focused every day on making sure that we can protect and defend and use the space domain the way we need to, both militarily or commercially and civilly to meet our national interests,” he said.
 
 
 

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