GPS Satellites Played Key Role in Gulf War Victory
A secret battle played out in Colorado Springs a quarter century ago this week as US troops took on the world’s fourth-largest military.
Inside an office building at what is now called Schriever Air Force Base, airmen and civilian workers rushed an experimental satellite system into operational use, making the Persian Gulf War the first conflict where signals from orbit decided events on the ground.
«It was cowboy space back then,» recalled Brian Bayless, who helped send Global Positioning System signals to ground troops in the 1991 war. GPS now boasts more than a billion users and has more than 30 satellites sending timing and navigation signals to Earth. In 1991, the system was in its infancy.
«We had just launched our 10th operation satellite,» said Marc Drake, now a civilian contractor at Schriever who helped turn the partially functional GPS constellation into a battlefield asset in 1991.
Before the war, GPS was seen as being a long way from fruition. But doing battle in trackless desert made the technology a life-saving concern.
«Our priorities completely changed,» Bayless said.
Schriever airmen and workers maneuvered satellites, including one with faulty thrusters, so that more GPS spacecraft would be overhead for troops using the primitive GPS ground units. The handheld version of GPS back then weighed several pounds. Most units had a backpack-sized device to interpret the signals.
It was a boon for the map-and compass Army that was sent on a massive maneuver, the famed 15-mile left hook, into an undefended section of Iraq.
«They were in the middle of the desert and they had no land features to guide them,» said Randy Saunders, historian for Schriever’s 50th Space Wing.
GPS was a scientific wonder that used ground terminals to compare timing signals from at least three satellites to determine a user’s precise location — with meters.
Keeping enough satellites over the Middle East meant 16-hour days at Schriever.
«You could have said you’re not getting paid for the next six weeks and they would have come to work anyway,» Bayless said of the GPS crews who worked through the war.
The navigation signals are credited with saving American lives by allowing American units to speed across the battlefield and providing the navigation details needed for precision strikes from artillery and rockets. It was a big factor in the four-day ground war.
Airmen in Colorado Springs also revolutionized communication during the Gulf War, providing high-speed satellite connections for voice, data and video transmissions.
Another asset from Space Command in Colorado Springs gave leaders a warning when Iraqi launched Scud missiles toward Saudi Arabia and Israel. The Defense Support Program satellites, build to warn American leaders of intercontinental ballistic missile launches from the Soviet Union spotted the Scuds as soon as their rocket engines fired.
Space Command workers knew at the start of the war that they had assets to help troops on the ground, but never realized the impact they could have in battle.
Drake remembered getting calls from leaders about battlefield needs.
«They would ask ‘can you do this?’ You’d always answer yes,» he said.
The accomplishments of airmen at Schriever in the 1991 war started a revolution in the military thinking. The availability of space assets is now the first consideration when going to war.
Drones, bombs and individual soldiers are guided and tracked by satellite now.
«We’re a lot more worried about access to space and protection of space assets,» Drake said.
Bayless said those hectic days in 1991 permanently changed how the world sees space. Cellphones, financial transactions, the Internet and in-car navigation systems use the signals they struggled to provide in 1991.
«When we came out of the war we really found out how much we did know,» he said.