Recalling First 'Space War'
by Jason Cutshaw
U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command
February 28, 2021
This year (2021) marks 30 years since Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi
forces occupying Kuwait were defeated and forcefully removed by
American and coalition partners during Operations Desert Shield and
Douglas F. Slater, operational planner and
analyst, U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command G-52, served as
a plans officer to the 1st Infantry Division (Mechanized), “The Big
Red One,” during Desert Storm, considered the Army’s first space war
from Jan. 1 to Feb. 28, 1991.
Slater, then a newly promoted
major in the U.S. Army, served as a tactical planner in the 1st
Infantry 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 of
Desert Storm and 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,” he added. “A lot of space-based capabilities
were considered by plans officers (who were) 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 that
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 they could
not hope to match.”
Soldiers operate the small lightweight GPS receivers during Operation Desert Storm in 1991. The receiver, which facilitated GPS navigation in the open desert, along with other space-based capabilities such as missile warning, space-based imagery and satellite communications played a major role in enabling the success of U.S. and coalition forces during 100 hours of sustained combat. (U.S. Army photo)
Slater said space-based imagery was as a key component to the
famous “Left Hook” maneuver of Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf Jr., as
well as numerous other battlefield engagements.
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 imagery and 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,” Slater added. “This picture said a thousand
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
“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,” he added. “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 GPS 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 Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iraq.
review determined GPS allowed rapid and accurate positioning of
artillery platoons and batteries without the long delay for surveys
to be completed.
“The system is accurate enough that only one
adjustment was ever required to bring indirect fires directly on the
target,” the after-action review reported. “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 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,” Slater said.
Slater, who served
from June 1979 to September 2003, retired as a lieutenant colonel.
He said even 30 years after Desert Storm 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,”
Slater said. “Of that, I am certain.”
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