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The Space Link

About critical space operations, Lt. Gen. William Shelton said, "Clearly, space is no longer a sanctuary for operations. So we must prepare accordingly to deter and dissuade hostile uses of space." (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Jonathan Olds)

About critical space operations, Lt. Gen. William Shelton said, "Clearly, space is no longer a sanctuary for operations. So we must prepare accordingly to deter and dissuade hostile uses of space." (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Jonathan Olds)

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Finding a fleeting enemy in Iraq's vast deserts or the rugged mountains of Afghanistan is no easy task for coalition ground forces. And when the enemy hears a warplane overhead, they run away and hide, taking advantage of the knowledge of the land in which they fight.

But coalition forces have a trump card. They know that high overhead, unheard and often unseen, a host of space-based systems -- and other weapon systems that depend on the information these out-of-this-world technologies provide -- help them find the elusive enemy.

Then they can deal with them.

This continual game of cat and mouse is a demanding task with life-and-death consequences. But it's a mission Lt. Gen. William L. Shelton wants to simplify. Helping him is a vigilant force of more than 20,500 often unseen and unheard space professionals who operate the key Air Force space systems on which warfighters depend.

The general commands Air Force Space Command's 14th Air Force [Air Forces Strategic]. It provides missile warning, space superiority and situational awareness, satellite operations and space launch and range operations. And he heads U.S. Strategic Command's Joint Functional Component Command for Space, which provides combatant commanders tailored, responsive, local and global space support.

From his headquarters at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., General Shelton gave Airman magazine an update on the increasing role of space warriors.

Airman: How are space warriors and their assets helping "win today's fight?"

General Shelton: Space capabilities are now foundational to military operations in the 21st century. In fact, I would submit that every military operation today depends on space for either planning or execution, or both. As examples, satellite communications link our forces worldwide, provide mobile communications down to the tactical level and disseminate crucial intelligence information. The precision that GPS [Global Positioning System] provides is a tremendous force multiplier, not just as a navigational tool, but by also allowing more precise munitions, lower collateral damage and secure communications timing. Space-based intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets are powerful tools to find, fix, target and kill our enemies -- wherever they are. Many view the effects provided by space assets as "utilities." But behind these space effects is the hard work of our great space team of active-duty military, civilians and contractors. These folks ensure the right effects are delivered on the timing and tempo requested by the warfighter.

Airman: How are GPS satellites helping avoid collateral damage and unnecessary loss of life in the war in Iraq and Afghanistan?

General Shelton: GPS-guided munitions are the weapons of choice in Iraq and Afghanistan. But it's not just air-delivered munitions that depend on GPS. Other indirect fire weapons, like the Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System, rely on GPS for the precision that we now take for granted. The unprecedented accuracy of these weapons limits collateral effects by allowing the use of smaller warheads and fewer munitions to ensure killing a given target, thereby lowering the likelihood of unintended damage. Another important aspect of this GPS-aided precision is the confidence we have in dropping these weapons very close to our forces in contact with the enemy, thereby providing very effective close-air support.

Airman: There's a lot of talk about unmanned aerial vehicles, but little about satellites that support them. Can you please explain their relationship?

General Shelton: Satellite communications are an essential part of how we employ unmanned aerial vehicles. They allow UAVs to operate well beyond line-of-sight. In fact, we are flying UAVs from stateside locations. This greatly reduces the footprint in theater, not just for the crews, but also for the support those crews require. Satellite communications also enable real-time dissemination of the data collected by UAVs, allowing a wide range of users access to the critical data in real-time. In addition to satellite communications, our UAVs depend on GPS for very precise navigation. I think it's fair to say that UAVs are critically dependent on satellite capabilities.

Airman: When people think of "Airmen at war," they visualize boots on the ground. How do you see these "space warriors?"

General Shelton: We like to think of our space warriors as deployed-in-place forces because they are an essential part of the warfighting effort 24/7 -- albeit from home station. Many in our space team have deployed forward in the U.S. Central Command area of operation, providing "boots on the ground" space expertise in theater, as well as a good conduit for reach back to our space team back home. Space operations are inherently global in nature and, as a result, space operators have a global perspective. But at the same time, we are very committed to providing all possible space effects needed by the various theaters, in most cases, simultaneously. Our operators are dedicated and innovative, always looking for new ways to maximize our space capabilities. They are truly an impressive group of people.

Airman: Could you highlight a little-known space effect our Airmen are using that allows America and her allies to conduct military operations 24/7?

General Shelton: Most people are very familiar with GPS, and the navigation capability it provides. But few understand the crucial role of the GPS precision timing signal in both military and commercial applications. Extremely accurate timing allows for a higher data rate over communications channels. In today's information age this is critical to pushing as much data as possible through our available communications bandwidth. Additionally, GPS timing allows secure encryption of communications by providing a common timing reference. Commercial users of GPS use the timing signal for applications such as time-stamping banking transactions and Internet timing, making GPS vital to our international business and networking.

Airman: What can you say about the immediate future of space operations in defense of our nation, and how do you prepare for the challenges that the future brings?

General Shelton: I've mentioned just a few of our space dependencies. But we also recognize that potential vulnerabilities accompany that dependence. The space domain is vast, but as more nations and commercial consortia become space-faring entities, it's becoming more crowded. We currently track more than 18,000 man-made objects in space, to include everything from active satellites to man-made debris. And these are just the objects that our sensors are able to track -- there are many more objects on orbit that we know we can't "see." In addition to these environmental hazards, potential adversaries possess the ability to disrupt or destroy our space capabilities. Therefore, we must build a strategy to preserve and protect our space capabilities against intentional and unintentional hazards. The starting point for an adequate protection capability is robust space situational awareness, which we define as tracking all man-made objects in space, discerning the intent of others who operate in space, knowing the status of our own forces in real-time and understanding the natural environment and its effect upon space operations. In fact, space situational awareness is foundational for all space operations, which is why Air Force Space Command is hard at work developing improved capabilities. In the future, a decision maker's ability to quickly answer the "who, what, when, where, how and why" questions regarding space events will help determine the proper course of action.

Airman: What else would you like to add that you feel is important to share with the rest of the Air Force?

General Shelton: As a nation, we need to understand the criticality of space superiority. Most of us intuitively understand the importance of superiority in other domains. Gaining and maintaining air, land and maritime superiority is a given in joint warfighting. Similarly, we can't assume that someone will not challenge our current space superiority in a future conflict. Some would argue Saddam Hussein fired the first shot in this regard when he tried to jam our GPS signals in 2003. The Chinese demonstration of an anti-satellite capability in 2007 is further evidence of the growing threat to the space domain. Many of our potential adversaries have watched us successfully leverage space assets and, therefore, are actively seeking ways to deny our space capabilities. Clearly, space is no longer a sanctuary for operations. So we must prepare accordingly to deter and dissuade hostile uses of space. And if deterrence fails, we must develop methods to preserve our critical space capabilities. So, to achieve victory in future conflict, I believe we must be prepared to gain and maintain superiority in all domains: Land, sea, air, space and cyberspace.