Scientific American put out an article a few weeks ago about the first advertised use of Global Positioning satellites during the Persian Gulf War. At least it’s the first time a type of space infrastructure was used aside from satellite communications and satellite imagery. We were pretty used to the idea of satellite communications by 1991, but GPS is a bit different, then and now.
What I didn’t realize, since I was going through college at the time, is there wasn’t even the minimum number of satellites the DoD says is required today, which is 24, back then while the U.S. was conducting the campaign. The number of GPS satellites then was only 2/3’s of today’s baseline, with specific time limits in which to conduct combat effectively. Even with that, the U.S. military men and women still managed to do what needed to be done to win the campaign. The story, “GPS and the World’s First ‘Space War’,” is a good story, and worth reading, if you’re into that sort of history.
The U.S. Air Force likes saying Desert Storm was the first “Space War.” But it was more about a different way to use space infrastructure–a very new kind of space infrastructure, to be sure, but infrastructure nonetheless. Otherwise we’d be calling other campaigns the first kind of “Submarine War” because we’d laid cable underwater and used mines. Or the first kind of “Air War” because we used pigeons for communications and observation balloons for reconnaissance. Maybe saying it’s the first “Space War” is just a convenient way to continue funding for the USAF…and it sounds very impressive, right?
It ties in nicely with my previous blog post, “When China Attacks?” It shows that even if someone somehow took the GPS constellation below the baseline of 24, things would still not be simple for those attacking, and the U.S. military would still be resourceful in using the remaining satellites (or maybe not even having to–there are alternatives, such as pseudolites).