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American Military Space Program: Initial Military Operations


This period will be best remembered as the time when military space systems were put to the test in actual warfare. Most of the systems performed quite well, and some beyond expectations. Truly the Kuwaiti War can be considered the first Space War. Many systems were enhanced or being ready to be replaced. Also, some classified programs officially were declassified.


In 1992, the existence of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) was officially announced. The NRO had been in existence since 1961 and the government determined that it was time to properly acknowledge this fact. Also in 1995, President Clinton declassified the CORONA program which was our nation's first photo reconnaissance satellite system.


The DMSP 5D-2 model continued to fly during the 1990s but will be replaced by the 5D-3 model at the end of the decade. Also the government decided that the civilian and military weather satellite systems should be combined into one national resource. This is progressing on schedule.


The Navy began launching and operating the replacement for its FltSatCom satellite constellation, the Ultra-High Frequency Follow-On (UFO) satellites. A total of seven UFOs have been put into orbit to date. The Air Force was finally able to declare its DSCS III constellation fully operational with the launch of the fifth satellite in the series in 1993. As part of President Reagan's program to upgrade the country's strategic forces, the Air Force designed a satellite that would not suffer prolonged blackouts from high-altitude nuclear detonations using Extremely High Frequencies (EHF). This system was the Milstar communications satellite. Development of this system took over ten years, and the first launch was in 1994. The biggest supporters of the Milstar system are the tactical commanders in the field, our country's CINCs.


The Air Force continued to launch the DSP-1 model of this early warning satellite, and it has performed beyond expectations. But due to changing technologies and changing threats, the mission for DSP was greatly expanded. The original mission for DSP in 1970 when the program was first started was the detection of strategic missile launches and nuclear explosions. By 1990, that mission now included the detection of tactical missile launches. The Air Force decided to acquire a totally new system with more capability. During the 1990s, the new proposed systems started out as the Follow-On Early Warning System (FEWS), but became the Space Based Infrared System -High (SBIR-Hi). This new satellite is planned for first launch in 2004.


By the beginning of the Persian Gulf War, the planned GPS constellation was not totally operational. GPS attained initial operational capability in 1993, and full operational capability in 1994. From 1991 to 1994, there were 14 launches of the GPS II-A models navigation satellites because they had proven their worth in combat. During the latter part of the decade, the GPS II-R and II-F models were planned for and acquired. The first II-R model was launched in 1997.


The war in Kuwait is called the first Space War. All space based assets were utilized tactically by all ground, naval and air troops. DMSP help in weather forecasting to determine ground sorties for planes, DSP detected the Scud missile launches and provided that information to Army Patriot batteries, and DSCS III communications satellites provided for 84% of the long-haul communications needs. But by far the satellite that proved itself in combat was the GPS satellites. They were used to guide Air Force and Navy aircraft to their targets, Army special forces helicopters depended on GPS to get them were they needed to go, and GPS receivers guided the movement of troops over hundreds of miles of featureless desert during the 100 hour war. From now on, no American military force could fight without the use of military space based assets.



Primary Author: Nicholas M. Short, Sr. email:

Collaborators: Code 935 NASA GSFC, GST, USAF Academy
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