Space: July 29, 2004


During the 2003 operations in Iraq, satellite-based information systems provided great benefit to coalition troops, but also had their share of glitches, according to a panel of junior officers presenting at a recent space warfare symposium in Colorado. There were several unexplained failures of the militarys GPS ground receivers during the war. In one incident, vehicle-mounted Precision Lightweight GPS Receivers (PLGR) used by a Marine Corps tank unit lost all GPS signals in the middle of a nasty ambush from a mix of Republican Guards and irregular forces. The lead company went too far into the ambush zone, but was able to quickly regain their bearings using off-the-shelf civilian hand-held GPS units. Army Armored Cavalry units also reported PLGR dropouts during raids in urban environments. 

A Navy SEAL described the use of a PLGR unit linked to a laser rangefinder to direct close air support strikes, but stated a preference for the smaller civilian GPS units when running around in the field. He also thought there was a tendency to rely too much on satellite imagery rather than eyes on the target. On one mission, his team had terrific imagery around the target area but when they arrived, they discovered what had appeared to be hard-packed ground turned out to be waist-deep mud. A MH-53 helicopter packed with critical gear ended up stuck, with mud reaching up to its windows and no way to get the equipment out. 

B-2 bombers had problems with gaps in satellite communications coverage of the Atlantic, but this was a failure of commanders to tell the satellite managers that B-2 operational staff had developed a way to update crews in flight using a pair of satcom radios to deliver e-mail, Powerpoint slides, photographs, and spreadsheets in route.

Finally, some systems had a very steep learning curve. An army captain received a Blue Force Tracking system just before going into combat without any training. Until he got the hang of the unit, it was a big bulky thing that got between him and his gunner. I think I e-mailed the door gunner on the space shuttle twice before I figured out how to use it. -- Doug Mohney




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