September 14, 2011: STRATEGY PAGE
During the May 2nd raid into Pakistan, to kill Osama bin Laden, several new electronic techniques were used. Planning the entry route, to evade Pakistani radars and other sensors, was plotted using detailed 3-D aerial photos and electronic surveillance of the area between bin Laden’s hideout and the Afghan border. Using optimization software, the stealthiest route was calculated. This technique has been around for a while, but this was the first combat use in a while, and the latest stuff is much more capable than the earliest 1990s versions.
Once the mission was underway, two RQ-4 Global Hawk UAVs were used to take video of the operation but, more importantly, serve as a communications satellite substitute. This allowed two-way, real-time voice and video communications with the assault team.
This is part of a trend in which military satellites are getting priced out of the market by cheaper manned aircraft and UAV alternatives. Even small, quickly launched micro-satellites, cost ten times more, per hour over the battlefield, than do alternatives. These now include things like weather balloons carrying satellite grade communications or sensors.
While the air force is concerned about satellite security, the U.S. Department of Defense has to confront the fact that it cannot afford sufficient satellites to meet the growing demand for communications satellites. The commsats cost at least $250 million each, and even the much touted micro-sats still cost about ten percent of that.
The air force believes that it has the answer, by using alternatives like weather balloons equipped with satellite commo or intel gear. The high altitude "satellite replacement" balloons are based on existing weather balloon designs, but carrying communications, surveillance or GPS gear instead of weather sensors. As long as you can pick up and broadcast the same kind of signals satellites handle, you can put the equipment in a high altitude (up to 30 kilometers/100,000 feet) balloon, or even a bomber or tanker that spends hours circling the battlefield. This is particularly useful for communications. Much of the satellite communications needed by combat troops is with other people in the same general area. So the commsat replacement (a balloon, UAV, KC-135 tanker or B-52) can do the job, passing off the long distance stuff to the real commsat.
The major cause of more commsat demand is live video being generated by the increasing number of vidcams on the battlefield. These vids are being exchanged by the units cooperating in an operation. Since that's all local, a "satellite substitute" will work. To that end, it was decided to put the comm gear in UAVs, including special UAVs that just fly circles high in the sky, acting as satellite substitutes. These substitutes cost less than ten percent, per hour in use, of what satellites cost.
The satcomm shortage problem began during the 1990s, when the U.S. armed forces moved to satellite communications in a big way. This made sense, especially where troops often have to set up shop in out of the way places and need a reliable way to keep in touch with nearby forces on land and sea as well as bases and headquarters back in the United States. The major consumer of bandwidth is the live video. But without the GPS birds, the UAV video won't be necessary, because many targets won't be as vulnerable, and worth attacking. Although there is a backup (inertial guidance) system in smart bombs, the backup is much less accurate.
The May 2nd raid into Pakistan needed reliable communications, and the specially equipped Global Hawks provided that, as well as some of the radar and video coverage.