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The Eyes and Ears of War

Data streaming from satellites proved pivotal in Iraq, letting U.S. troops beat Hussein's forces to the punch on the battlefield.

April 24, 2003|Usha Lee McFarling | Times Staff Writer

Stretched across a wall at the U.S. Air Force's Combined Air Operations Center near the Persian Gulf is a shimmering, ever-changing display, showing the location of every aircraft above Iraq.

Throughout the war, commanders at the operations center used the map to reroute bombers the moment targets emerged -- whether they were Saddam Hussein sightings or Iraqi missile launches. In a matter of minutes -- not hours or days as in past wars -- commanders identified targets and then sent out orders to bomb.

This compression of time, known in the military as "shortening the kill chain," was possible for just one reason: satellite information. Flowing through a network of electronic eyes and ears above Earth, information bathed the battlefield, sending location data to GPS units in tanks, messages to sturdy portable computers with the troops and satellite images to weather stations set up on the dusty front lines.

The fire hose of information from space was a little-heralded but critical part of the swift victory in Iraq, providing a different kind of shock and awe: the ability to act almost instantaneously and cripple the Iraqi army's ability to respond.

In the Iraq war, space became the ultimate military high ground.

While last year's conflict in Afghanistan saw the use of space technologies in small skirmishes, the Iraq war marked the first effort to apply them across an entire battlefield swarming with hundreds of thousands of soldiers and a constant rush of tanks, jets and helicopters.

"If you ask what was the difference between Iraq's army and America's army, the big difference was satellites," said John Pike, a defense analyst with, an intelligence and military policy think tank based in Alexandria, Va. "And it's technology you don't even notice."

Though overshadowed by headline-grabbing pilotless drones and 21,000-pound MOAB bunker-buster bombs, the quick, quiet, almost mundane flow of electronic information -- whether from polar orbiting weather satellites 23,000 miles above Earth or school bus-sized KH or "keyhole class" spy satellites keen enough to read large newspaper headlines from space -- proved one of the U.S. military's most powerful weapons.

Big Changes

"Information is not just a weapon, it's an enabling technology that changes the culture, institution and setting in which war is conducted. It changes everything," said Loren Thompson, a defense and satellite expert at the Lexington Institute, a nonprofit think tank in Arlington, Va. "It is bringing about changes that are more fundamental than any we've ever seen before -- more fundamental than the tank, or the submarine, or even the atomic weapon."

In the current war, about 90% of the allied bombs used were so-called smart bombs that were guided either with lasers or GPS signals from orbiting satellites, military officials said. In the 1991 Persian Gulf War, only about 10% of weapons were precision-guided.

For the first time, allied commanders at the front were able to receive on portable computers target images from orbiters such as the "Lacrosse" radar-imaging satellites, which can see through clouds and darkness. Weather satellites, both civilian and military, gave notice of advancing dust storms and clouds. A decade ago, images of crucial targets sometimes had to be hand-carried from as far away as Washington, or were slowly transmitted as blurry, barely legible faxes.

The time lag between a target's identification and its destruction -- also known as the "sensor-to-shooter gap" -- has never been shorter. In an attempt to kill Hussein with an airstrike on April 7, "the time from when we identified the target to when we struck was less than 15 minutes," said Col. Larry James, senior space officer at the air operations center.

Allen Thomson, a retired intelligence analyst now living in Texas, said the most important satellite assets in this war were "the unglamorous ones" that supported communications, navigation and meteorology. These include the military's star performer: the Air Force Space Command's behemoth "Milstar" satellites, 10,000-pound switchboards in space that provide secure voice and data communication around the world. The number of satellites of all types used in the war is estimated to be nearly 100.

While allied forces were flush with data coming in day and night, Iraqi officers appeared to be operating with very little good information, experts said. At times, the Iraqi leadership was sending orders to units that no longer existed.

"Our side knew where all of our forces were at any given moment and the other side did not," said Steven Aftergood, a senior research analyst with the Federation of American Scientists. "It sounds simple, but it's actually a significant technological achievement."

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