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Document created: 1 June 2007
Air & Space Power Journal- Summer 2007
LTC Bob Guerriero, USA*
Retired Air Force lieutenant colonel Edward Tomme’s
interesting article “The Myth of the Tactical Satellite” (Summer 2006)
outlines some of the challenges associated with employing a satellite in
a tactical role. The author does an excellent job of describing the
physical constraints of satellite operations due to orbital mechanics
and payload size, weight, and power issues. However, the article
includes some inaccurate assumptions about the nature of tactical
operations and the potential value of a tactical satellite for the war
fighter on the ground, thus leading to a wrong conclusion.
Colonel Tomme begins his article by discussing what the term tactical means to a war fighter: “The warrior has a very specific understanding of what that technical term [tactical] means—applying to small-scale, short-lived events, usually involving troops in contact.”1 From an Army perspective, tactical does have a specific meaning, but it is not limited to Colonel Tomme’s. Army Field Manual (FM) 3-90, Tactics, states that “the tactical level of war is the level of war at which battles and engagements are planned and executed to accomplish military objectives assigned to tactical units or task forces” (emphasis in original).2 FM 3-0, Operations, defines a battle as “a set of related engagements that last longer and involve larger forces than an engagement” and an engagement as “a small tactical conflict between opposing maneuver forces, usually conducted at brigade level and below.”3 Colonel Tomme’s article implies that all tactical operations are engagements, lasting minutes or hours. In reality, they can last for days, weeks, months, or longer. The planning in advance of such operations can take equally as long.
Any discussion of tactical satellites must also consider the operational
level of war, defined by FM 3-0 as “the level at which campaigns and
major operations are conducted and sustained to accomplish strategic
objectives within theaters.”4
A tactical satellite might prove most
useful at this level. Because operations can last anywhere from days to
years, a theater commander could find the data and support provided by a
tactical satellite extremely valuable. At the operational level of war,
the commander faces the challenge of linking the tactical employment of
units to the fulfillment of strategic objectives. To succeed, he or she
must leverage both strategic and tactical capabilities, including
Colonel Tomme’s article also leaves the reader with the impression of tactical satellites as a replacement for existing constellations of satellites: “A tactical war fighter needs persistent imagery. Getting a snapshot every hour or so is not very useful at the tactical level. . . . It is almost inconceivable to contemplate sending commanders into combat after telling them that they would only be able to communicate five minutes out of every half hour.”5 Finally, when referring to the mission of the Defense Support Program (DSP), Colonel Tomme remarks that “it would still take between 12 and 20 of them to provide continual global coverage.”6 Because these statements tend to narrow the focus to tactical satellites alone, as if they are the only assets available to the war fighter, they inaccurately convey the idea that these satellites fail to meet war-fighter needs. In reality, commanders have a myriad of capabilities available, each suited to a particular application, and tactical satellites could complement these other capabilities.
Tactical war fighters do need persistent imagery, but they neither expect nor require that it come from a tactical low Earth orbit (LEO) satellite alone. A commander relies on the collective ability of ground-based, fixed-wing, and space-based collectors to provide persistence across the spectrum. A tactical satellite that complements other intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) platforms by providing some specific pieces of information, even just once per day, could be extremely valuable to a commander. Similarly, no commander expects a LEO satellite to serve as a primary means of tactical communications. Many other systems serve this function, but a tactical satellite could augment these systems by providing some specialized, intermittent communications and data access. Finally, no one considers tactical satellites a replacement for the entire DSP constellation, with its global missile-warning mission. Instead, a tactical satellite could complement this constellation by offering an enhanced battlespace-characterization capability. The DSP performs this function now with its overhead nonimaging infrared sensors, but missile warning naturally takes precedence over battlespace characterization, thereby limiting the DSP’s utility in that role.
Finally, Colonel Tomme questions the value of any tactical satellite to a tactical war fighter, maintaining that ISR missions are not practical because “the gap times are much longer than the timescale of a tactical engagement.”7 He also argues that “sparse constellations of satellites in LEO have no chance of providing a useful communications capability.”8 In fact, tactical satellites in LEO or high-Earth orbits could perform many extremely valuable missions for theater commanders.
An imagery intelligence or signals intelligence (SIGINT) payload on a
tactical satellite, directly downlinked to the theater and available for
dynamic retasking by the theater collection manager, could make great
contributions by supplementing other resources available to the
commander. The advantage of the tactical satellite lies in its
responsiveness to the theater commander, who could receive direct
support from a space-based asset. One of the most valuable capabilities
of space-based ISR platforms remains the ability to collect information
over denied territory without an adversary’s knowledge. The best use of
such a tactical system would entail collecting intelligence over an area
selected as the location of an imminent operation, when that area is
either denied territory or one that the commander does not want to draw
attention to. Even one pass per day could provide useful and actionable
information, especially during the monitoring of an area for changes
during the days leading up to an operation. Ideally, we would tailor the
payload to support operations in a particular theater so that it would
provide information not already collected by other sensors. Some
examples include a nonimaging spectrometer that could detect the
manufacture of weapons of mass destruction, a microwave SIGINT
collector, or an infrared sensor that might have a limited lifespan due
to cryogen cooling requirements.
We can also envision valuable communications payloads for tactical satellites—even for intermittent communications. Take for example a communications package that receives low-probability-of-detection transmissions from covert operators and then relays them through other systems to a theater headquarters. By selecting a LEO asset to do this, we could use a relatively low-power ground transmitter and thus lower the probability of detection. A payload of this type would stay overhead only intermittently, and an operator could send updates just at specific times and for limited durations. For a covert operation lasting days or weeks, requiring only periodic updates to the commander, this arrangement might prove completely sufficient. Including a laser-communications payload on this satellite would substantially increase the amount of data transmitted in a short time. We would never use such a system to provide continuous communications; rather, when needed, it would complement other means of communication available. We could also utilize this type of tactical satellite for long-term tracking of friendly or enemy personnel, vehicles, or equipment. Again, thanks to the low-power requirements for transmitting to a LEO satellite, small transmitters in enemy territory could go undetected for long periods of time and would consume very little power. Granted, this system allows only intermittent monitoring capability, but for long-term tracking of personnel or equipment movement, we do not always require or desire continuous updates.
We should not dismiss the value of tactical satellites. They can fill an important role as complements to other existing constellations and assets while providing a level of responsiveness to theater commanders not available from strategic systems. Realizing the potential of these satellites will require the same level of creativity, determination, and perseverance that has made our strategic constellations so successful for over 40 years.
Colorado Springs, Colorado
* The author is assigned to the Directorate of Combat Development, Future Warfare Center, US Army Space and Missile Defense Command, Colorado Springs, Colorado.
1. Lt Col Edward B. Tomme, “The Myth of the Tactical Satellite,” Air and Space Power Journal 20, no. 2 (Summer 2006): 90, http://www.airpower.maxwell.af.mil/airchronicles/apj/apj06/sum06/sum06.pdf.
2. Field Manual (FM) 3-90, Tactics, July 2001, par. 1-4, http://www.dtic.mil/doctrine/jel/service_pubs/fm3 _90a.pdf.
3. FM 3-0, Operations, June 2001, par. 2-12, http://www.dtic.mil/doctrine/jel/servicepubs/fm3_0a.pdf.
4. Ibid., par. 2-5.
5. Tomme, “Myth of the Tactical Satellite,” 92.
6. Ibid., 95.
7. Ibid., 96.
The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University
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