On 19 March Lt Gen B Chance Saltzman, Deputy Chief of Space Operations for the US Space Force (USSF), explained to the Brookings Institution the role the space domain has played during conflicts and how that technology has evolved over the last 30 years – since Operation Desert Storm, which some experts believe to have been the first ‘space war.’

Many of the space capabilities deployed at that time, such as the Global Positioning System (GPS), have become vital components in how the United States – and many others – conduct military operations. GPS helped allied commanders keep track of the manoeuvring Iraqi army during a sandstorm in 1991, Gen Saltzman explained – something that could not have happened in previous conflicts. GPS also enabled the use of precision munitions, which had a devastating effect on the Iraqi army “both physically — because we were hitting the enemy — and mentally, because they had no idea how we were able to track them through the weather, through the night,” he said, adding that satellite communications also enabled around half the communications networks that were critical to effective C2.

Since Desert Storm, space-based capabilities have dramatically improved, Saltzman said. “If there's a missile launched on the surface of the Earth, we know about it.” The biggest change since Desert Storm is that the space domain is no longer a benign environment, he observed. Adversaries realise they cannot take on the US military in direct combat, so they've decided to use space as a low-cost way to gain an asymmetric advantage. “Now, we have a space force that's focused every day on making sure that we can protect and defend and use the space domain the way we need to, both militarily or commercially and civilly, to meet our national interests.”

Bringing tankers and combat aircraft together in precise locations at specific times requires the level of precision navigation made possible by GPS. Now almost routine, the practice has never been so fiercely tested, perhaps, as during Operation Desert Storm. (Photo: USAF)

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