The Libyan Operation: Rethinking the Space Contribution in Rapid Response Operations


10/15/2011 – By Dr. Robbin Laird and Dr. Alain Dupas

The Libyan military operation in Libya is not yet over. It is too early for scholarly and learned lessons. But it is not too early to look at the tactical experiences and how those experiences presage changes to come. We have done an initial look at the overlap between the experience of the French and of the U.S. Marine Corps in the Libyan operations and have discovered some significant overlaps in experience.

If we look at the congruence of the French with the USMC Marine experiences, several things can be highlighted.

First, the centrality of leveraging multiple bases in a littoral operation is significant. The French used several land bases and incorporated the sea base — whether the carrier or their amphibious ships — to work with land-based aircraft. The Marines used their land base largely to supply the sea-based air ops via Osprey transport.

Second, having the C4ISR — command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance — forward deployed with the pilot as the key decision maker is crucial to mission success. The classic USAF U.S. Air Force CAOC (Combined Air Operations Center) is challenged by what the Marines demonstrated in the operation; the French experience also challenges it.

If you have a long C4ISR chain, the information in a fluid and dynamic situation must be provided in a more timely fashion than a system built for 1991 air operations permits.

Third, new air capabilities make a significant difference. For the USMC, the Osprey was the game changer in this operation. For the French, it was the new recce reconnaissance pods off of the Rafale fighters.

Fourth, the dynamic targeting problem experienced by the French was also highlighted by the USMC Marines’ experience. Getting accurate information from the ground is central to operations. The USN-USMC Navy-Marine team has a number of new capabilities being deployed or acquired which that will enhance its ability to do such operations. The F-35B fighter will give the USMC Marine Corps an integrated electronic warfare and C4ISR capability. The new LPDs have significant command and control capabilities. For the French, acquiring unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), which that could become wingmen for the Rafales would be important, and the role of the C2 command and control capabilities of the new amphibious ships were was underscored as well.

Fifth, the pickup quality of this operation may be more a norm than an aberration moving forward. If it is, then the old paradigm (significant planning and roll out of a fleet of C4ISR aircraft and capabilities) may be challenged by a new one: Deploying air assets that can be tapped by the sea base to shape an operation may become one of the key requirements moving forward.

Let us now hover over the C4ISR aspect a bit more. The French officers in charge of the operation were keenly aware of how little time they had to plan for the it, and putting UAVs and combat aircraft over Libya prior to a U.N. authorization was not a great idea. President Nicolas Sarkozy decided considerably before the U.N. resolution that France would operate in Libya, but to the French military leaders, this meant that the political roll out did not mesh with what their planning requirements.

This discussion about the comparative U.S.-France experiences in the Libyan intervention raises the question about space systems: Could they be used, in the future, to provide a much more operationally reactive and efficient role, in the spirit of what is called in the U.S. Operationally Responsive Space (ORS)?

For instance, if such ORS systems had been available in Europe, France could have used the insertion of a small constellation of LEO small satellites into low Earth orbit by quick launch to allow a couple-of-months cushion for planning, and then to provide efficient tactical support to the intervention.

Not only would such an ORS capability be essential to operations where the political dynamic is determinant, but the military capability decisive, it would also enable significant manpower savings compared to with UAVs. Contrary to the common wisdom, UAVs are not cheap; they are vulnerable to ground fire and cyber-attacks,; they require significant manpower to support an “unmanned” asset,; and of course they cannot be used before an official green light since they operate in the airspace of a sovereign country. Once the satellites are launched, the manpower support is minimal to deliver the capability. And their intelligence information can be downloaded directly to the cockpits of the pilots, who then, after initial destruction of enemy capabilities, can transition to dynamic targeting.

Does such an approach make sense in Europe? Responsive space has up to now been just a nice concept, inspired by the (slow) progress of the United States in this direction, (exemplified by the launching of TacSat-4 on September. 27)? Are not the existing European space reconnaissance assets sufficient to prepare an intervention like the one in Libya?

An ORS capability would be a very valuable complement because the main issue is not the strategic intelligence but the tactical input to the commanders and pilots in the field, which has to be put in place, tested and exploited before the beginning of the operations. A constellation of a few small satellites, launched on- demand, and injected in very low altitude orbits tailored to provide the best coverage of the countries of operations, would add enormously to the efficiency of the combat system.


We think that, considering the new geopolitical landscape, ORS space systems deserve to become a new priority in Europe. The technical and industrial capabilities are there: A company like SSTL small satellite specialist Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. could certainly could build what could be called “Satellites on the Shelf (SOTS),” ready for on-demand launches; and concepts of the Airborne Micro Launcher (MLA), already considered by CNES, DLR and CDTI to be validated by a technological demonstrator called Aldebaran, using a Rafale), could pave the way to a European responsive small launcher.


(For a video of the launcher, please see For a lecture on the launcher from CNES, please see

One also may wonder also, at a time when the issue of low-cost space systems is crucial, if ORS could not be a great opportunity for Europe to put in place new approaches to develop rapidly and cheaply small responsive space launchers and satellites rapidly and cheaply?.

The world is changing in an accelerated way. New military challenges like the Libyan intervention call for new ways to operate, with focus on local C2command and control, and tailored tactical means. ORS systems could be one of such means, which Europe could develop with or without the U.S.

This op-ed appeared in Space News on October 10,2011