Defending Our Satellites: The Need for Electronic Warfare Education and Training

By Bonner, E. Lincoln | Air & Space Power Journal, November 1, 2015 | Go to article overview

Defending Our Satellites: The Need for Electronic Warfare Education and Training


Bonner, E. Lincoln, Air & Space Power Journal


The US military enjoys tremendous advantages over any potential adversary because of its exploitation of space capabilities. It is of paramount importance that Air Force Space Command (AFSPC) position its Airmen to defend and protect America's space advantage in the contested space environment of the present and future. AFSPC can best develop space Airmen to win tomorrow's fight in this contested environment by significantly improving and expanding education and training in the use of electronic warfare to defend US satellites and improve their survivability.

The following discussion first describes why improving space system survivability is critical to US war fighting. It then explores and compares the role of electronic warfare in aircraft survivability to the space domain to demonstrate how prowess in electronic warfare is essential for successful defensive space control. The article next describes the current state of electronic warfare education and training for space operators. Finally, it explores suggestions for improving space leaders' readiness to win in electronic warfare in order to defend America's space advantage.

Space System Survivability and US War Fighting

The US military gains a disproportionate advantage over potential adversaries by exploiting space capabilities. Satellites provide an advantage similar to that of reconnaissance aircraft in World War I-(1) warning of enemy attack to help ensure that these attacks fail and (2) the enabling of precision strikes.1 Additionally, satellites provide over-the-horizon communication at a combination of speed, volume, and mobility that terrestrial communications cannot match.

US military initiative-the ability to observe, orient, decide, and act more quickly and more effectively than an opponent-heavily depends upon space capabilities. US intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance satellites can observe far over the horizon, providing ample warning time to react to enemy moves and countermoves and help to ensure that adversary attacks fail-similar to the contributions of airborne reconnaissance in World War I. Space-based intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance extend that World War I airborne reconnaissance advantage, though, by providing not only time to react but also enough warning to seize the initiative and choose the time, place, and conditions of battle.

In addition to reconnaissance, satellites enable precision strikes. US advantages in massing and concentrating effective firepower from fewer units and strike platforms stem largely from the use of precision-guided munitions, which are, in turn, heavily dependent upon data provided by Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites. For example, in the 1991 Operation Desert Storm against Iraq to liberate Kuwait, 1,207 strike aircraft participated in the air campaign, approximately 4 percent of which were precision guided by laser-GPS-guided munitions were not yet available.2 In Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, 772 strike aircraft participated in the air campaign-36 percent fewer than in 1991-and 68 percent of the bombs released were precision guided, principally by the GPS.3 Newer weapons like the Small Diameter Bomb have a relatively small blast radius to limit collateral damage and become combat ineffective in many scenarios without precision guidance data from the GPS or an alternate source. US air, land, and naval forces heavily depend upon GPS information for navigating and conducting precision strikes. Even modern-day airborne reconnaissance, which provides advantages similar to those of satellite reconnaissance, heavily depends upon space capabilities.

Remotely piloted aircraft like the MQ-9 Reaper and RQ-4 Global Hawk have assumed a significant portion of the airborne reconnaissance workload. These remotely piloted aircraft leverage GPS data for navigation and guidance as well as employ secure satellite communications. These communications provide for command and control and mission-data relay to processing, exploitation, and dissemination on the ground half a world away. …

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