HomeNewsArticle Display

Evolution of GPS: From Desert Storm to today's users

A Soldier holds one of the small lightweight GPS receivers used during Operation Desert Storm in 1991. (U.S. Air Force photo)

A Soldier holds one of the small lightweight GPS receivers used during Operation Desert Storm in 1991. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Two Soldiers test early models of GPS manpack receivers in 1978. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Two Soldiers test early models of GPS manpack receivers in 1978. (U.S. Air Force photo)

An illustration of the GPS satellite constellation. (Courtesy graphic)

An illustration of the GPS satellite constellation. (Courtesy graphic)

LOS ANGELES AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. (AFNS) -- In a desert, it's easy to get lost. There are no roads, no signposts, nor vegetation to give locational clues.

That was the grim situation facing U.S. and coalition forces during the 1990-1991 crisis in the Persian Gulf, known as Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm.

Sometimes called "the first space war" by historians due to the extensive use of space-based satellites and other technological assets to command and control military forces on a battlefield, Desert Storm marked a major test of GPS in an actual combat environment.

Despite some shortcomings at the time, the use of GPS during its infancy revolutionized combat operations on the ground and in the air during the first Gulf War.

Among the many uses of GPS in Desert Storm, navigation proved to be a crucial capability for desert warfare. GPS signals enabled coalition forces to navigate and out-maneuver the enemy, and they could also fire with unprecedented accuracy in the vast desert terrain almost 24 hours a day despite difficult conditions. GPS provided coalition forces a distinct advantage over the enemy; they were actually able to navigate regions in Iraq that the Iraqis themselves refused to enter.

However, during Desert Storm, the GPS constellation was still several years from full operational capability. In 1991, there were only 19 GPS satellites in orbit, spanning across three generations of GPS satellite -- GPS I, II, and IIA -- which provided up to 20 hours of 3-D coverage. While 24 operational satellites are needed to provide 100 percent global, 3-D coverage with acceptable performance, GPS usefulness was proven before the constellation reached initial operational capability in 1993.

Meanwhile, for deployed forces in the desert, it became extremely critical to procure small lightweight GPS receivers often pronounced "sluggers" by the troops. By today's standards, these GPS ground units are considered primitive. The handheld version of GPS back then weighed several pounds. Most units had a backpack-sized device called "manpacks" to interpret the signals.

The SLGR program had already begun in 1987 with a competitive non-development item acquisition process by the Space and Missile Systems Center, which awarded a contract in 1989 for more than 1,000 sets. By the time Desert Storm began one year later, it quickly became apparent there would be an immediate need for additional navigation equipment because, as one troop wrote to a manufacturer, "As you are no doubt aware, navigation in this desert is an absolute nightmare, and for this reason I find it absolutely necessary that I obtain a satellite navigation system by whatever means possible."

Although each U.S. Army unit had at least one GPS receiver for maneuvering, the demand for receivers was so great that special approval from the Pentagon was obtained for the Army to acquire commercial units. Once a waiver was approved, the GPS Joint Program Office at SMC, managed by Col. Marty Runkle with Lt. Loralee Ryan as GPS user equipment project manager, awarded contracts for over 8,000 more receivers from commercial providers.

Inside an office building at what is now Schriever Air Force Base, Colorado, Airmen and civilian workers with the 2nd Space Operations Squadron helped turn the partially functional GPS constellation into a battlefield asset in 1991, making the Persian Gulf War the first conflict where space-based navigation was used. Operators from the 2nd Space Control Squadron maneuvered satellites so that more GPS spacecraft would be overhead for troops using the sluggers and manpacks.

Other operations enabled or enhanced by GPS included precision bombing, artillery fire support, the precise positioning of maneuvering troop formations, and certain special forces operations such as combat search and rescue missions. In addition to being carried by ground troops, GPS receivers were attached -- in some cases with tape -- to vehicles and helicopter instrument panels and were also used in F-16 Fighting Falcons, KC-135 Stratotankers and B-52 Stratofortresses.

After the Gulf War, the U.S. Army announced it would install GPS receivers in all armored vehicles to help minimize fratricide, which became a major source of casualties in Desert Storm, most often caused by armored unit commanders lost in the featureless Iraqi desert or out of position during ground attacks.

Since the Gulf War, the United States has employed GPS in several peacekeeping and military operations. During Operation Restore Hope in 1993, GPS enabled the airdrop of food and supplies to remote areas of Somalia that lacked accurate maps and ground-based navigation facilities. U.S. forces entering Haiti in 1994 also relied on GPS. During the Balkan crisis, GPS assisted delivery of aid to the Bosnians by guiding U.S. Air Force transport planes at night to drop food and medicine in designated drop zones.

It was actually the military's success in the Persian Gulf conflict that gave the commercial GPS market its biggest boost, sparking a surge in a growing multi-million-dollar market that had barely existed just a few years prior to the war. Desert Storm provided the stage to display the military uses of GPS, from helping Soldiers navigate across a featureless desert to enabling artillery and bomber units to target the enemy with unprecedented accuracy.

GPS was always a dual-use military and civil system, but a policy directive announced by President Bill Clinton in 1996 reiterated this and established an Interagency GPS Executive Board to manage it as a national asset. Plans to upgrade GPS with two new civilian signals for enhanced user accuracy and reliability, particularly with respect to aviation safety, were officially announced in 1998.

In May 2000, the discontinuance of the selective availability function, which formerly added error to the signal so non-military users got less accuracy on GPS, made the GPS signals in space a "global utility" more responsive to civil and commercial users worldwide.

The capabilities of GPS systems are used worldwide by billions of people in their consumer, professional and military devices. Whether paying at the gas pump, withdrawing money from an ATM, precision farming, international banking or international shipping, GPS enables our modern way of life. It is also a critical component of delivering precise combat power in support of joint and coalition warfighter objectives, as proven on the desert battlefields of Southwest Asia a quarter of a century ago.

Engage

Twitter
The Installation Resilience Operations Center prototype is a game-changing solution for enhancing base security, em… https://t.co/ATHhejDoQJ
Twitter
“It’s important that you will be able to lead through complex challenges,” @GenCQBrownJr said. “I really want to ch… https://t.co/UI86usPVtO
Twitter
VCSAF Gen David W. Allvin visited various @AFResearchLab facilities to see how the 711th Human Performance Wing is… https://t.co/F5tpk0Mabc
Twitter
Invisible Wounds: Signs and Symptoms The Invisible Wounds Initiative, an @AFW2 Support Program, leads in creating… https://t.co/4SeYhlQuua
Twitter
Maggie Gee and Hazel Ying Lee were two of the first Chinese-American aviators to join the Women Airforce Service Pi… https://t.co/txl43oLLRs
Twitter
RT @USAFCENT: Listen to SrA Francis Andrew, assigned to the 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing, tell his story as one of the 'Lost Boys of Sudan.…
Twitter
#ICYMI Aircraft loaded with #COVID19 supplies left @Travis60AMW, California, bound for India. This shipment was jus… https://t.co/YdYFniZyok
Twitter
“While there are a lot of people who have done great things in the #AirForce, we wanted to recognize diversity and… https://t.co/bTH2aP5emk
Twitter
“It is a real honor, and I wish I could be there in person,”@GenCQBrownJr said during his acceptance speech. “I’d r… https://t.co/DH5Ou832K5
Twitter
RT @RealAFOSI: 1/ OSI's Guam based Detachment 602 recently spent time strengthening relationships throughout the Commonwealth of the North…
Twitter
RT @grandslamwing: Mobilizing to assist - anywhere, anytime. Members from #TeamAUAB aboard a C-17 from @TeamCharleston took off to assist t…
Twitter
RT @AirNatlGuard: .@HiAirGuard Airmen deployed to California to participate in exercise Sentinel Response 2021 alongside @CalGuard Airmen a…
Twitter
.@GenCQBrownJr and @cmsaf_official discuss the best ways to help Airmen's talent to bloom. #Airmen #Questionshttps://t.co/GGDHJkiOOb
Twitter
Airmen at the 149th Fighter Wing, Texas, demonstrated an autonomous machine solution for an @AFWERX innovation init… https://t.co/5ZGnnOPfYi
Twitter
During a quarterly senior leader review, @KesselRunAF & @USAF_ACC leaders agreed the Air Operations Center Weapon S… https://t.co/FnXQYIiG86
Twitter
RT @SecAFOfficial: #PublicServiceRecognitionWeek starts today! This is a chance to acknowledge the civil servants who dedicate themselves t…
Twitter
#ICYMI - The Air Force Employee Assistance Program has expanded the available resources available to #AirForce civi… https://t.co/t1eC1eRPfb
Twitter
RT @PACAF: #Airmen from PACAF conducted bilateral training with @JASDF_PAO (Koku-Jieitai) to enhance joint deterrence and response capabili…
Twitter
For 40 Airmen, the standard, manual deployment process averages four hours & 15 minutes per Airman from start to fi… https://t.co/Q8clDOwq3g
Facebook
The newest Air Force Podcast recently dropped. Listen to a small snippet of CMSAF Kaleth O. Wright talk with Staff Sgt. New about resiliency. Listen to the entire podcast on Youtube: https://go.usa.gov/xpnAD or Subscribe to The Air Force Podcast on iTunes: https://podcasts.apple.com/podcast/the-air-force-podcast/id1264107694?mt=2
Facebook
Our mantra, "Always ready!" It's the spirit we fly by! #B2Tuesday
Facebook
Need some motivation to get your week started off right? Listen as CMSAF Kaleth O. Wright weighs in...
Facebook
The U.S. Air Force Academy gives its cadets some unique opportunities. Ride along one of this opportunities.
Facebook
A United States Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker refuels an F-22 Raptor over northern Iraq, Nov. 6, 2019. U.S. Central Command operations deter adversaries and demonstrate support for allies and partners in the region. (Video by Staff Sgt. Daniel Snider)
Facebook
Although the Silver Star is the third-highest military medal, it's not given often. Today, TSgt Cody Smith was the 49th Special Tactics Airman to receive this medal since Sept. 11th, 2001. Read more of TSgt Smith's amazing story: https://www.airforcespecialtactics.af.mil/News/Article-Display/Article/2024815/special-tactics-airman-battled-through-injuries-awarded-silver-star/fbclid/IwAR2LZWwx1VHdTnQe39rIEBOuJS_0JvMQBBGt7I-E6zsxxn-Lx9387yu43Bc/ Cannon Air Force Base Air Force Special Operations Command United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) U.S. Department of Defense (DoD)
Facebook
Tune in as our Air Force musicians along with other military musicians are awarded the National Medal of Arts.
Facebook
Like Us
Twitter
1,346,468
Follow Us