A typical scene from the conflict in Afghanistan, where for the first time space-specifically, more than one hundred orbiting military satellites-has been a centerpiece of the war machine: A soldier on the ground spots a Taliban target. With a lightweight, handheld Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver known as a "plugger," he uses the constellation of GPS satellites to calculate the longitude and latitude of his mark and phones in the coordinates, via satellite, to an air base in Florida. From there, an alert is sent to commanders in Saudi Arabia, who direct a Predator drone to fly over the Taliban site and relay real-time video of the scene-again, via satellite. The target is approved for bombing, and a B-52 pilot, cruising more than 20,000 feet overhead, safely out of range of antiaircraft missiles, punches the GPS coordinates into the computer of a Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM) bomb before releasing it. The bomb uses its own GPS receiver to careen Earthward toward the target, exploding within a few feet of it. The whole process takes only minutes, not days as in previous wars. And the $20,000 JDAM bomb is a bargain compared with already old-fashioned $100,000 laser-guided bombs, which have difficulty finding their targets through dust, clouds, and smoke.
But there were regrettable incidents as well. In December, after an Air Force spotter calculated the position of a Taliban target with his plugger, the device's battery went dead. The spotter changed the battery and relayed the GPS coordinates to a B-52 approaching the target. What the spotter didn't realize was that his plugger was programmed to display the coordinates of its own location upon rebooting. A 2,000-pound JDAM bomb landed with devastating precision, killing three Special Forces soldiers and five Afghan allies.
Even without human error, space military technology can be unreliable. GPS signals are easily jammed; the sharpest-eyed spy satellites have trouble seeing through clouds; and communications among myriad military forces and systems frequently clog the airwaves. Meanwhile, military satellites are completely undefended and vulnerable to attack.
The solution, if space is going to play a bigger role in future warfare, say Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and others within the administration, is "space control." Defense strategists aren't just concerned about repairing deficiencies; they see space as a new and largely unexploited frontier. In other words, they want to seize the high ground in space-not just to watch the globe for enemy activities or to launch strikes from space, but also to deny adversaries access to space as a military vantage point. It's a risky approach, with its share of critics, because it invites countermeasures from potential adversaries and terrorists-and possibly all-out war in space.