A long time ago, in a desert far, far away, space became the newest combat domain.
The year 2021 marks 30 years since Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi forces occupying Kuwait were defeated and forcefully removed by American forces and coalition partners.
Douglas Slater, operational planner and analyst, Space and Missile Defense Command G-52, served during Desert Storm as a plans officer to the 1st Infantry Division (Mechanized), “The Big Red One,” during the Army’s first space war Jan. 17 through Feb. 28, 1991.
Slater, then a newly promoted major, served as a tactical planner in the division G-3 Plans department when the division unfurled its colors in Saudi Arabia in December 1990. He said space-based capabilities were key to enabling the division’s successful completion of operations during the 100-hour ground campaign Feb. 24-28, and he added that in 1991 the Army did not fully understand what space could bring to the fight.
“The Army had just begun to explore the capabilities of space,” Slater said. “Although I was only a very small cog in this big machine, as a plans officer for the Big Red One I was in a unique position to observe the unfolding of Operation Desert Storm and how all the pieces of this mighty puzzle came together.
“At this time there were no Space Support Teams, nor any sort of joint or Army doctrinal publications to turn to in order to learn what was available. A lot of space-based capabilities were considered by plans officers, tasked to align capabilities against requirements, to fall within the category of ‘then magic happens.’ Fortunately for the division we found that even if it is ‘then magic happens’ for space-based capabilities and in particular imagery, missile warning, GPS navigation, and satellite communications, they were welcome combat multipliers which all had a positive impact on enabling the division’s operations. These space-based capabilities were instrumental in enabling the division to maintain momentum and dictate the tempo of operations onto Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi forces, and it was a tempo which they could not hope to match.”
Slater then explained the specific role space-based imagery played as a key component to the famous “Left Hook” maneuver of Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, as well as numerous other battlefield engagements.
“From space, disturbances in the soil, or rather the sand, leave a very distinct signature and contrast between hot dry surface sand and cool damp subsurface sand,” Slater said. “The deeper you dig – for example, a revetment for a tank firing position – the sharper the contrast. As planners, and disciples of Sun Tzu, we were also generally familiar with how Hussein’s Iraqi forces task organized, specifically with an engineer company for each infantry brigade, as well as tanks, anti-tank weapons, and artillery. From disturbances in the sand evident from the imagery, we could also piece together how individual unit commanders had organized their defense.
“Based on the disturbances in the sand evident in the imagery, and with a rudimentary understanding of Hussein’s Iraqi doctrine and organization, Big Red One planners were able to do a fairly detailed analysis to determine unit boundaries and weak points in the defense to at least the battalion and brigade level with great confidence, and to the division, and corps levels with some confidence. This picture said a thousand words.”
Slater said missile warning also played a key role in enabling the protection of the Division and other coalition forces, as combat power was building in the tactical assembly areas and forward staging locations prior to the ground campaign. When the air campaign commenced on Jan. 17, Hussein’s forces launched their volleys of SCUD missiles against Saudi Arabia and other targets in the region.
“With highly successful Patriot forces having their baptism of fire protecting strategic assets and other high value targets, the only option for the Big Red One was to duck and cover,” Slater said. “To provide for early warning, however, the Army – or someone – provided the Division with a means to receive and communicate the early warning of missile attack. From whence it came I did not know then and may never know now, but Soldiers showed up one day with a black box/laptop they set up in the G-2 van of the division main headquarters.
“To me it was fascinating and the Soldiers were only too proud to show missile launches and rough predicted impact points. This allowed the division to only duck and cover when the predicted impact point was near us. Basic and thin-line though it was, this means of reading the infrared signature and providing the division with early missile warning allowed the division to maintain momentum with preparations leading up to the ground campaign.”
During the ground campaign, Slater said the advantages provided by space-based capabilities of the Global Positioning System cannot be overstated. There were many times, often for days, when there were only two GPS satellites in view. Even that was enough to support basic navigation across the broad expanses of the Saudi, Kuwaiti and Iraqi desert regions.
“The GPS further allowed rapid and accurate positioning of artillery platoons and batteries without the long delay for surveys to be completed,” a division after-action review stated. “The system is accurate enough that only one adjustment was ever required to bring indirect fires directly on the target.
“Every vehicle in the Army should be equipped with a GPS … the number of American lives saved by the GPS during Desert Storm cannot be measured, but if it could, the number would be staggering.”
Slater said that in addition to space imagery, missile warning and GPS, satellite communications, or SATCOM, was critical in the fast-moving conflict and key corps-level decisions, such as fire support coordination were driven by SATCOM efforts.
“The command and control of the Big Red One throughout the extensive and complex ground campaign would not have been possible, or even imaginable, without the advantages of satellite communications,” he said.
Having served from June 1979 to September 2003, Slater retired as a lieutenant colonel and said that even after 30 years, many of these events are still fresh in his memory.
“My impressions then were that these space-based capabilities – imagery, missile warning, GPS navigation and SATCOM – played a major role in enabling the success of the division during 100 hours, over 250 km, of sustained combat,” he said. “Of that, I am certain.”