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Tactical satellites: the rest of the story.

RETIRED AIR FORCE lieutenant colonel Edward Tomme's interesting article "The Myth of the Tactical Satellite" (Summer 2006) outlines some of the challenges associated with employing a satellite in a tactical role. The author does an excellent job of describing the physical constraints of satellite operations due to orbital mechanics the principles governing the motion of bodies in orbit around other bodies under gravitational influence, such as artificial Earth satellites.

See also: Mechanics
 and payload size, weight, and power issues. However, the article includes some inaccurate assumptions about the nature of tactical operations and the potential value of a tactical satellite for the war fighter on the ground, thus leading to a wrong conclusion.

Colonel Tomme begins his article by discussing what the term tactical means to a war fighter: "the warrior has a very specific understanding of what that technical term [tactical] means--applying to small-scale, short-lived events, usually involving troops in contact." (1) From an Army perspective, tactical does have a specific meaning, but it is not limited to colonel tomme's. Army Field Manual (FM) 3-90, Tactics, states that "the tactical level of war The level of war at which battles and engagements are planned and executed to accomplish military objectives assigned to tactical units or task forces. Activities at this level focus on the ordered arrangement and maneuver of combat elements in relation to each other and to the enemy to  is the level of war at which battles and engagements are planned and executed to accomplish military objectives assigned to tactical units or task forces" (emphasis in original). (2) FM 3-0, Operations, defines a battle as "a set of related engagements that last longer and involve larger forces than an engagement" and an engagement as "a small tactical conflict between opposing maneuver forces, usually conducted at brigade level and below." (3) colonel Tomme's article implies that all tactical operations are engagements, lasting minutes or hours. In reality, they can last for days, weeks, months, or longer. The planning in advance of such operations can take equally as long.

Any discussion of tactical satellites must also consider the operational level of war, defined by FM 3-0 as "the level at which campaigns and major operations are conducted and sustained to accomplish strategic objectives within theaters." (4) A tactical satellite might prove most useful at this level. Because operations can last anywhere from days to years, a theater commander could find the data and support provided by a tactical satellite extremely valuable. At the operational level of war, the commander faces the challenge of linking the tactical employment of units to the fulfillment of strategic objectives. To succeed, he or she must leverage both strategic and tactical capabilities, including satellite assets.

Colonel Tomme's article also leaves the reader with the impression of tactical satellites as a replacement for existing constellations of satellites: "A tactical war fighter needs persistent imagery. Getting a snapshot every hour or so is not very useful at the tactical level.... it is almost inconceivable to contemplate sending commanders into combat after telling them that they would only be able to communicate five minutes out of every half hour." (5) Finally, when referring to the mission of the defense Support Program (DSP (1) (Digital Signal Processor) A special-purpose CPU used for digital signal processing applications (see definition #2 below). It provides ultra-fast instruction sequences, such as shift and add, and multiply and add, which are commonly used in math-intensive ), colonel tomme remarks that "it would still take between 12 and 20 of them to provide continual global coverage." (6) Because these statements tend to narrow the focus to tactical satellites alone, as if they are the only assets available to the war fighter, they inaccurately convey the idea that these satellites fail to meet war-fighter needs. In reality, commanders have a myriad of capabilities available, each suited to a particular application, and tactical satellites could complement these other capabilities.

Tactical war fighters do need persistent imagery, but they neither expect nor require that it come from a tactical low earth orbit (communications) low earth orbit - (LEO) The kind of orbit used by communications satellites that will offer high bandwidth for video on demand, television, and Internet communications.  (LEO) satellite alone. A commander relies on the collective ability of ground-based, fixed-wing, and space-based collectors to provide persistence across the spectrum. A tactical satellite that complements other intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance An activity that synchronizes and integrates the planning and operation of sensors, assets, and processing, exploitation, and dissemination systems in direct support of current and future operations. This is an integrated intelligence and operations function. Also called ISR.  (ISR (Interrupt Service Routine) Software routine that is executed in response to an interrupt. ) platforms by providing some specific pieces of information, even just once per day, could be extremely valuable to a commander. Similarly, no commander expects a LEO satellite to serve as a primary means of tactical communications Tactical communications are tactical, and therefore a great advantage if you have them and the enemy does not, and communications in which information of any kind, especially orders and decisions, are conveyed from one command, person, or place to another within the tactical . Many other systems serve this function, but a tactical satellite could augment these systems by providing some specialized, intermittent communications and data access. Finally, no one considers tactical satellites a replacement for the entire DSP constellation, with its global missile-warning mission. Instead, a tactical satellite could complement this constellation by offering an enhanced battlespacecharacterization capability. The DSP performs this function now with its overhead nonimaging infrared sensors, but missile warning naturally takes precedence over battlespace characterization, thereby limiting the dSP's utility in that role.

Finally, colonel tomme questions the value of any tactical satellite to a tactical war fighter, maintaining that ISR missions are not practical because "the gap times are much longer than the timescale of a tactical engagement." (7) He also argues that "sparse constellations of satellites in LEO have no chance of providing a useful communications capability." (8) in fact, tactical satellites in Leo or high-earth orbits could perform many extremely valuable missions for theater commanders.

An imagery intelligence Intelligence derived from the exploitation of collection by visual photography, infrared sensors, lasers, electro-optics, and radar sensors such as synthetic aperture radar wherein images of objects are reproduced optically or electronically on film, electronic display devices, or other  or signals intelligence (SIGINT Noun 1. SIGINT - intelligence information gathered from communications intelligence or electronics intelligence or telemetry intelligence
signals intelligence
) payload on a tactical satellite, directly downlinked to the theater and available for dynamic retasking by the theater collection manager, could make great contributions by supplementing other resources available to the commander. The advantage of the tactical satellite lies in its responsiveness to the theater commander, who could receive direct support from a space-based asset. One of the most valuable capabilities of space-based iSR platforms remains the ability to collect information over denied territory without an adversary's knowledge. The best use of such a tactical system would entail collecting intelligence over an area selected as the location of an imminent operation, when that area is either denied territory or one that the commander does not want to draw attention to. even one pass per day could provide useful and actionable information, especially during the monitoring of an area for changes during the days leading up to an operation. Ideally, we would tailor the payload to support operations in a particular theater so that it would provide information not already collected by other sensors. Some examples include a nonimaging spectrometer that could detect the manufacture of weapons of mass destruction Weapons that are capable of a high order of destruction and/or of being used in such a manner as to destroy large numbers of people. Weapons of mass destruction can be high explosives or nuclear, biological, chemical, and radiological weapons, but exclude the means of transporting or , a microwave SIGINT collector, or an infrared sensor that might have a limited lifespan due to cryogen cry·o·gen
A liquid, such as liquid nitrogen, that boils at a temperature below about 110 Kelvin (-160°C) and is used to obtain very low temperatures; a refrigerant.
 cooling requirements.

We can also envision valuable communications payloads for tactical satellites--even for intermittent communications. Take for example a communications package that receives low-probability-of-detection transmissions from covert operators and then relays them through other systems to a theater headquarters. By selecting a LEO asset to do this, we could use a relatively low-power ground transmitter and thus lower the probability of detection The Probability of Detection is a term used in Radar sets. The radar system must detect, with greater than or equal to 80% probability at a definied range, a one square meter radar cross section. The received and demodulated echo signal is processed by a threshold logic. . A payload of this type would stay overhead only intermittently, and an operator could send updates just at specific times and for limited durations. For a covert operation lasting days or weeks, requiring only periodic updates to the commander, this arrangement might prove completely sufficient. Including a laser-communications payload on this satellite would substantially increase the amount of data transmitted in a short time. We would never use such a system to provide continuous communications; rather, when needed, it would complement other means of communication available. We could also utilize this type of tactical satellite for long-term tracking of friendly or enemy personnel, vehicles, or equipment. Again, thanks to the low-power requirements for transmitting to a LEO satellite, small transmitters in enemy territory could go undetected for long periods of time and would consume very little power. Granted, this system allows only intermittent monitoring capability, but for long-term tracking of personnel or equipment movement, we do not always require or desire continuous updates.

We should not dismiss the value of tactical satellites. They can fill an important role as complements to other existing constellations and assets while providing a level of responsiveness to theater commanders not available from strategic systems. Realizing the potential of these satellites will require the same level of creativity, determination, and perseverance that has made our strategic constellations so successful for over 40 years.


(1.) Lt Col Edward B. Tomme, "The Myth of the Tactical Satellite," Air and Space Power Journal 20, no. 2 (Summer 2006): 90, http://www.airpower air·pow·er or air power  
1. The organized, integrated use of aircraft and missiles for purposes of foreign policy, strategy, operations, and tactics.

2. The tactical and strategic strength of a country's air force. apj06/sum06/sum06.pdf.

(2.) Field Manual (FM) 3-90, Tactics, July 2001, par. 1-4,

(3.) FM 3-0, Operations, June 2001, par. 2-12,

(4.) Ibid., par. 2-5.

(5.) Tomme, "Myth of the Tactical Satellite," 92.

(6.) Ibid., 95.

(7.) Ibid., 96.

(8.) Ibid.

Editor's Note: For a reply to this article, see "Tactical Satellites: It's Not 'Can We?' but 'Should We?' " by Lt Col Edward B. "Mel" Tomme, USAF, retired, in this issue.

lieutenant colonel
 BOB GUERRIERO, USA The author is assigned to the directorate of combat development, Future Warfare center, US Army Space and Missile defense command Space and Missile Defense Command (SMDC) is a specialized major command within the United States Army. The SMDC is an organization composed of five components:
  • SMDC Headquarters and the Force Development Integration Center in Redstone Arsenal, Alabama
  • U.S.
, colorado Springs, colorado.


Colorado Springs, Colorado
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Title Annotation:The Merge
Author:Guerriero, Bob
Publication:Air & Space Power Journal
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2007
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