Military communications, reconnaissance and Global Positioning System satellites provide services to deployed forces every day, said Gen. C. Robert Kehler, commander of Air Force Space Command.
But the organization wants to know what more it can do to participate in the irregular warfare that ground forces are currently engaged in.
“We’re looking at making sure that at small units … and even down to the individual level, that we are putting into their hands the space or space-related capabilities that they need,” Kehler said at the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colo.
Kehler ordered his staff last year to take a hard look at whether the multi-million space systems that fly thousands of miles above battlegrounds can do more to help troops battling insurgents on the tactical level.
“I specifically have asked our command … to engage with our fellow services and others in a clear understanding of what we can be doing more of — or what we can be doing better — to make sure we are participating in irregular warfare,” Kehler said.
“We need to adjust to the unique demands of the users,” he added.
One of the first actions Space Command took was to change the orbital locations of GPS satellites to ensure that their signals can be received more effectively in Afghanistan’s mountainous terrains. The command has been slowly repositioning some of the spacecraft this year to give war fighters stronger signals. That takes some time because it needs to conserve the limited amount of fuel carried onboard, but the process should be finished later this year, Kehler said.
As for communications, Space Command is looking at ways to increase bandwidth. If it can’t find enough on its own satellites, it will go to commercial providers to purchase more, he said.
The deadliest weapon used by insurgents has been the improvised explosive device. Detecting these bombs before they explode has been a tough technological challenge during the past eight and half years of war. When asked what, if anything, space-based capabilities can do to solve this problem, Kehler pointed to the hyperspectral imager aboard the TacSat-3 spacecraft that is currently in orbit.
Hyperspectral sensors can distinguish multitudes of colors undistinguishable to the human eye. They have been used on unmanned aerial vehicles to scan roadsides for disturbed earth, for example, to discover buried IEDs.
The experimental TacSat spacecraft are designed to demonstrate new intelligence and reconnaissance capabilities, while giving battlefield commanders direct access to real-time data.
TacSat-3 includes a Raytheon-built advanced responsive tactically effective military imaging spectrometer, or Artemis.
Lt. Gen. John T. Sheridan, commander of the Air Force space and missile systems center, said TacSat-3, launched in May 2009, “has been a rousing success.”
“We don’t even know all the things we can do with hyperspectral information in space,” he told reporters. “But we’re learning and we’re developing new applications as we go, and I think the sky is the limit.”