TCS Daily

What`s the Frequency, Congress?

By Melana Zyla Vickers - December 11, 2001 12:00 AM

Unmanned aircraft, bombers, and bombs are not the only instruments of U.S. power occupying the skies above Afghanistan - they`re just the visible ones. Equally important are the space-based satellites that take pictures of the battlefield, allow the aircraft to communicate with headquarters and navigate the munitions precisely to their targets.

The practice of using space to support military operations in real time has, since the Persian Gulf War, become so effective and successful that it has compelled planners in the Pentagon to push space-based capabilities beyond navigation, communication and reconnaissance of stationary targets. Their next frontier is space-based tracking of moving targets on the ground.

Unfortunately, Capitol Hill isn`t tuned into this frequency.

The Senate Appropriations Committee has, according to Defense Daily, cut off at the knees a program to build a constellation of Space-Based Radar (SBR) satellites that - impervious to air defenses, difficult terrain, and great distances - would beam to warfighters a constant image of targets moving on the ground. The committee`s myopic move comes just a year after Congress cancelled a similar satellite program called Discoverer II.

What`s the committee`s rationale? "The program proposes to fund research activities that are duplicative of ongoing efforts in other DoD agencies." Similar criticism plagued Discoverer II.

But Congress`s attacks aren`t accurate. The country`s upcoming constellation of spy satellites called the "Future Imagery Architecture," won`t be able to track moving targets at all - only stationary ones. And the Joint Surveillance Target Attack System, or JSTARS, an airplane-mounted radar-detection system that maps moving targets on the battlefield, can only see "100 miles past the forward line of troops." It risks seeing even less far in future because of improvements in enemy air defenses, former tactical-technology director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency David Whelan has said.

Meanwhile, the advantages of the proposed Space-Based Radar are that it would provide:

  • moving-target images in real time. The SBR could beam to military personnel images of everything from Afghanistan-based terrorists moving in trucks to Chinese mobile missile-launchers being shifted from location to location. With a "sensor to shooter link," the satellites would allow aircraft or other weapons platforms to take out such targets.

  • images untrammeled by terrain, clouds, nightfall or distance. The satellites promise to map the ground from high altitude and from several angles at once, doing away with the sorts of terrain obstructions that block the view of non-stealthy, lower-flying surveillance platforms such as JSTARS. It would also map terrain in three dimensions, allowing warfighters to pinpoint targets precisely. In addition the SBR would see across much greater distances than these other platforms.

  • imperviousness to air defenses. The SBR, safe in a space orbit, could not be struck by enemy air defenses the way JSTARS aircraft can be currently or the way even stealthy unmanned aerial vehicles. UAVs might be if enemy forced developed counter-stealth measures. The imperviousness isn`t critical in Afghanistan or other countries with negligible air defenses. But in a conflict with an adversary such as Iran or China, altitude helps.

    What`s more, the SBR could be deployed in a decade - a short period in military-acquisition terms. For all these reasons, it was wrongheaded of the Senate Appropriations Committee to cut in half funding for the SBR. The $50-million budget request should be restored when the 2002 Defense Appropriations Bill goes to conference. (The program goal is to build about 24 satellites at $160 million a pop.)

The exploitation of space for battlefield purposes is the vanguard of the "revolution in military affairs," or RMA. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld recognized this with his space commission report shortly before coming into office. The American public recognizes this every time it`s awed by the accuracy of precision munitions landing on a convoy of Taliban Landcruisers.

It`s high time Congress rotated its receiving dish to this beam of insight as well.


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