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Officials Work On Pentagon's Need For Space Capabilities

Commanders at every echelon in the war on terrorism have come to rely on military space capabilities.
by Army Staff Sgt. Michael J. Carden
American Forces Press Service
Washington (AFNS) Feb 04, 2009
Adapting new capabilities within the rapidly changing military space environment is increasingly important to national security, and Defense Department officials in the Operationally Responsive Space office are working to meet the Pentagon's needs for space capabilities rapidly.

ORS requires current technologies to be developed and fielded quickly to ensure the capabilities are available within months, and not decades as they were in the past, ORS director Peter Wegner said recently in an interview with American Forces Press Service.

The evolution of military space assets such as satellite imagery, global positioning systems, high-speed communications and missile warning systems have been a growing national defense necessity since the Cold War era, Mr. Wegner said, and with the threat of terrorism lurking throughout the world, those assets remain equally valuable today.

"In the past five years, the concept of ORS has gotten a lot of traction," Mr. Wegner said, noting the positive impact GPS and up-to-date digital imagery have had for troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Commanders at every echelon in the war on terrorism have come to rely on military space capabilities, he said. But the current space architecture consists of mostly larger, more exquisite satellite systems and is shared by all levels within the Defense Department, with the president having top priority.

The priority list for those satellites can impede opportunities for ground commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan to benefit from their capabilities, Mr. Wegner said.

For instance, Soldiers in Afghanistan planning to raid an al-Qaida cell would benefit more from a satellite image of their target and route that is 30 minutes old than they would from a three-day-old image. If a bridge on their route was destroyed after the three-day-old image was taken, he explained, the entire mission could be jeopardized.

So, when Pentagon officials established the ORS office at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M., in May 2007, they wanted to build on the concept of augmenting the current space architecture with smaller satellites to provide more frequent audio, video and radio support for the warfighters on the ground, he continued.

"I want to be able to give [warfighters] a picture of what's over the next hill 30 minutes before they ever get there," Mr. Wegner said. "I want to be able to pick up the radio signals of the guy over the next hill, too, and tell troops what he's doing. I want to give troops radio links so that when part of them are over that hill and part of them aren't, they can still talk."

Pentagon space analyst Robert Reese agreed that timely information is critical for warfighters. "It does no good to give [a commander] the best product in the world two days late," he said. "We need to give him a product to do his mission within an operationally relevant timeframe."

Another benefit of having more frequent access to satellite systems is systems in space are not regulated as conventional aircraft are. Though unmanned aerial vehicles and other surveillance aircraft have been generally successful, Mr. Reese said, operators must be aware of national airspace. Satellite surveillance has no such boundaries.

"One of the beauties of space is you go wherever you want," he explained. "In airspace, you have to be respectful of other nations' airspace. One of the things that space allows you is access to denied airspace."

"As [the Defense Department] began to integrate space capabilities into tactical warfighting, the demand for that capability is almost insatiable," he added. "The demand for intelligence surveillance and for communication and situational awareness in space and on the ground is critical to commanders."

Throughout the past year, ORS has developed solutions for several different needs, including UHF communications and enhanced space situational awareness, Mr. Wegner said.

"Whatever that capability is that the warfighter needs, [ORS] wants to get it to him," he said. "We want to provide assured space power focused on timely satisfaction of joint forces commanders' needs."

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