Air Force Gen. William Shelton remembers American troops fighting the first so-called “space war” in the dusty, barren deserts of Iraq and Kuwait.
Half of the United States’ planned constellation of global positioning satellites circled overhead in 1991. AH-64 Apache helicopters flew with satellite transmitters duct-taped to their windscreens.
“It’s hard to imagine today, but back then, there were no GPS receivers on their platforms,” said Shelton, then the head of a squadron running those satellites.
For an agency that has seen its budget increase nearly 180-fold, officials at Air Force Space Command have grown accustomed to change.
Air Force officials celebrated the 30th anniversary of Air Force Space Command this month, marking a milestone as it oversees operations that many had a hard time envisioning in 1982.
What started as a $71 million program to oversee the Cold War from space has morphed into a communications and cyber warfare juggernaut boasting an annual budget of $12.7 billion.
The days of free-wheeling spending could be nearing an end in the years ahead. About $55 billion in military-wide spending cuts known as “sequestration” could take hold in January, the first of nearly $500 billion in projected cuts over the next 10 years.
That’s on top of roughly $500 billion in other Defense Department cuts already slated to occur in the next decade.
“There certainly is a lot of concern on the horizon here in terms of what might happen with terms of sequestration,” said Shelton, who heads the command. “Even if the full sequestration doesn’t happen, there certainly are signals coming out that there could be further cuts.”
“But we believe that what we do in both space and cyber is foundational.”
The specter of budget woes is just the latest challenge in the ever-shifting mission of Air Force Space Command.
The Defense Department formed the agency on Sept. 1, 1982, in part to manage a military space shuttle program that would mirror activities as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
The program now rests as an oft-forgotten relic of an era that staled in the wake of the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion in January 1986.
Officials tabbed Schriever Air Force Base — then called Falcon Air Force Base — as the shuttle’s center for operations, similar to how Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, oversaw the NASA’s shuttle program, said Rick Sturdevant, deputy historian for the command.
Crews also built a shuttle launch pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, he said.
But coupled with the end of the Cold War, the Challenger disaster spurred the agency’s focus to shift. The command’s other reasons for creation slowly began to take shape.
When the agency formed in 1982, other military agencies were reluctant to hand over control of space surveillance and early-warning systems that were designed to detect nuclear threats.
“It wasn’t until the spring of 1983 that we had any systems to operate,” Sturdevant said.
In the next 10 years, Air Force Space Command began watching for missile launches, operating spy, communications and weather satellites and — in the early 1990s — overseeing the launches of its satellites.
The true usefulness of space capabilities to soldiers on the ground didn’t become apparent until the Gulf War.
Instead of watching for nuclear launches, military satellites trained their sensors on smaller Scud missiles used by Iraq to terrify Saudi Arabia and Israel. The capability proved critical to American troops amid fears that enemy missiles carried chemical or biological warheads.
And using a new group of navigation satellites called the global positioning system, soldiers were able to track their position in the vast expanse of the Middle East — a critical ability considering the lack of landmarks such as mountains in the desert.
“Because they had such accurate navigation, they ended up leading the fight on the first night going through the enemy’s air defenses,” Shelton said.
The furious advancement of those technologies have led to a far different mission for the command 20 years later.
Global positioning satellites have become an integral part of everyday society, offering time stamps for credit card devices and helping commercial planes navigate the skies. Even cars with GPS systems use the command’s satellites.
The command’s growth has also spurred a lucrative economy for space-oriented companies to set up shop in Colorado Springs.
“The fact that they’re (Air Force Space Command) located here has cause this to be a center of space activity,” said Janet Stevens, spokeswoman for the Space Foundation.
The command now faces the challenge of protecting the data aboard those satellites.
“What we are using them (satellites) for is even more important than the systems themselves,” Sturdevant said. “So protecting that passage of those 1s and 0s without having somebody interfere with them becomes vital.
“You might as well not even have any space-based systems if you can’t protect the streams of 1s and 0s.”
In the process, agency officials plan to update hardware in space. The command is preparing to launch a new constellation of global positioning satellites, as well as communications satellites that offer 10 times as much bandwidth as previous satellites.
Though future funding might be in question, Shelton said he’s bullish on the command’s future.
“You just can’t find a military operation that doesn’t depend on space and cyber,” Shelton said.