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Managing the war in space

Inside the GPS center

IPIX 360° images



April 27, 1999
Web posted at: 11:03 a.m. EDT (1503 GMT)

COLORADO SPRINGS (CNN) -- Last week, I told you about our trip inside the fabled Cheyenne Mountain Air Station. I didn't have the space to tell you where the real action in space is -- as NATO continues its campaign in the skies over Yugoslavia.

You can see Cheyenne Mountain several miles in the distance -- offering a post-card backdrop to the nondescript building on Peterson Air Force Base which houses the Space Operations Center for the U.S. Space Command.

Our peering eyes and lenses forced the multi-service crew there to darken several computer screens and cover over some classified documents and equipment, but I think we still got a good taste of what they do -- and how busy they are.

So what's the current mission here? Capt. Robert Huckelberry gave me the bottom line: "to get relevant, accurate information to the war planners so they can make decisions with more current information -- faster than Milosevic."

They are conduits of information, from the folks who fly the weather, navigational, and missile detection satellite networks to the folks who are deciding which targets to strike -- and when.

For instance: Cruise missiles use the Global Positioning System to precisely make their way to the intended target. GPS accuracy varies somewhat as the 27-satellite constellation orbits at an altitude of 10,000 miles. The more satellites that are above the horizon at any given time, the more accurate GPS is.

The GPS fleet is flown at Schriever Air Force Base a few miles down the road. I got a chance to see the young airmen and women who keep the satellites straightened up and flying right. It's an impressive group. Some are as young as 18 years old, yet they handle the responsibility for these multi-million dollar birds with great aplomb.

Given the incredible commercial bonanza spawned by GPS technology, it is sometimes easy to forget its revolutionary effect on the way the U.S. wages war.

The deputy commander of the 50th Operations Group, Col. Michael Kelly, put it best: "We used to have to drop over 300 bombs to hit one target. Now we can drop one bomb to hit one target because of GPS."

To properly utilize that tremendous accuracy, military planners will consult with the Space Operations Center back at Peterson to learn when is the best time for a precision cruise missile attack. Here they keep track of where the GPS satellites are -- and where they are headed -- and can project the future accuracy of the system for anyplace on earth.

It is a source of pride here that the people making decisions "in theater" are growing more and more reliant on the Pentagon's unparalleled abilities to exploit the ultimate high ground.

Just ask Maj. Robert (NoBob) Moore. He spends a lot of his time on the road evangelizing for space as an important military tool.

"Our job is to make them understand the full capabilities and bring the full brunt of space control and space force enhancement to their operations," says Moore. Not long after we left, he shipped out to Europe to do just that.

Moore remembers a time when field commanders weren't sure what to make of (if you'll pardon the expression) the "space cadets" who appeared at their command posts toting computers and communication gear.

"In the very early days we would have to go out and beat down the door and get these people to understand what space is."

But, that, as they say, was then. "Once they got the bait and started reeling us in ... we are now called into every operation that goes on worldwide -- not only military but humanitarian and civil as well."

A lot of folks say space power may be where air power was in 1921, when Gen. Billy Mitchell prophesized that air superiority would win the next war. Mitchell constantly criticized his superiors for not pushing harder for more air power. His stridency landed him in hot water -- he was court-martialed and forced to resign. In 1942, six years after he died, Congress voted to reverse the punishment, just as it became obvious Mitchell's philosophy could not have been more prescient.

These days, the arguments over whether space can provide a big tactical advantage are over. Now the talk is about logistics: how best to integrate space assets into the decision-making process.

Space Operations Branch Chief Col. Barbara Duink states it matter-of-factly: "A fight cannot go on without space -- you have to have space to win."

Space Correspondent Miles O'Brien's column appears on Tuesdays.

Downlinks with Miles O'Brien

Downlinks archive

Spacecom upgrades for the future
April 8, 1999
Y2K pushes U.S., Russia to work on warning center for nukes
January 15, 1999
High-tech weaponry to aid U.S. strike
February 14, 1998

U.S. Army Space Command
NORAD--North American Aerospace Defense Command
   • The Cheyenne Mountain Story (Information Booklet)
Peterson Air Force Base
Schriever Air Force Base
The Pentagon
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