Satellites provide vital reconnaissance, communications to war effort

by Michael Woods   April 02, 2003

WASHINGTON -- Two commercial satellites will quietly sweep over Iraq this morning, snapping battlefield images that chronicle the war's progress for millions of TV viewers, newspaper readers and military officials.

The Ikonos and QuickBird will have a lot of company up there, as they glide through an orbital traffic jam of military satellites -- the ultimate high ground of 21st-century warfare.

Never before has space played such a large role in how a war is conducted, and how it is perceived by people around the world.

At least 50 military satellites support the U.S.-led war effort, providing reconnaissance data; communications links for troops on the ground, ships at sea and aircraft in flight; precise targeting data for cruise missiles and smart bombs; instant warning of Iraqi missile launches; weather forecasting; commercial and cable TV programming for U.S. forces, and myriad other services.

Another 24 satellites that make up the Global Positioning System have essential roles in the Iraq war, as well, guiding missiles to targets and reporters to stories, along with a variety of commercial communications satellites.

Even the space shuttle has been involved; it might be actively engaged now if it had not been grounded by the Columbia disaster. A February 2000 flight of the shuttle Endeavor scanned Earth's surface with a radar device, producing a three-dimensional map that is used to select targets in Iraq.

"From a special operations soldier on horseback navigating by GPS to our global communications architecture providing intelligence and command and control around the world, never again will this nation fight without significant contributions from space," Adm. James O. Ellis told the Senate Armed Services Committee a week before the war broke out.

The Pentagon plans to send a lot more hardware into orbit, too. This year will witness one of the largest expansions of space war-fighting capabilities in history, according to Peter B. Teets, undersecretary of the Air Force. At least 12 "national security" launches are scheduled, compared with just one last year. Some may put multiple satellites into orbit.

Just nine days before the war began, a new Defense Satellite Communications System was installed in space. It connects ground forces, ships, planes, the Pentagon, the White House, the State Department and what the U.S. Space Command, which has responsibility for the system, describes as "special users," such as intelligence agencies.

During the 1991 Persian Gulf War, just two defense system satellites handled almost 80 percent of military communications. The space command says there are now 11 third-generation defense satellites in geosynchronous orbit 22,230 miles above Earth. Each $200 million satellite is almost the size of a minivan and weighs 2,716 pounds.

Maj. Gen. Judd Blaisdell, director of space operations for the Air Force, estimated that 33,600 people at 36 sites around the world are involved in space-war activities.

The military satellite inventory is amazingly diverse.

At least three so-called "Keyhole" satellites take images of surface features on twice-daily sweeps over Iraq -- one during the day, one at night.

Each of several "Lacrosse" spy satellites makes a half-dozen sweeps over the country every 24 hours. Their radar sensors can see through heavy cloud cover and sand storms both day and night.

Another satellite brigade eyeballs the Earth's surface for infrared rays, for heat given off by motor vehicles, people, buildings, missile launches and other things.

One of the satellite launches this year will complete the so-called Milstar system, a network of five advanced military communications satellites.

Michael Woods can be reached at or 1-202-662-7072.

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