Describing how he used U-2 radar imagery to generate precision target coordinates during the 1999 Kosovo war, Vice Admiral Daniel J. Murphy, Jr. explained that:
I walked into the intelligence center and sitting there was a 22-year-old intelligence specialist who was talking to Beale Air Force Base via secure telephone and Beale Air Force Base was driving a U–2 over the top of this spot. The U–2 snapped the picture, fed it back to Beale Air Force base where that young sergeant to my young petty officer said, we have got it, we have confirmation. I called Admiral Ellis, he called General Clark, and about 15 minutes later we had three Tomahawk missiles en route and we destroyed those three radars.
The obvious question, at least for me, was why Beale AFB in Calfornia was “driving” the U-2 when the aircraft was flying from Istres, France, and the air operations center was in Aviano, Italy.
The explanation took some digging to locate. It begins, more or less, with the first Gulf War. During Operation Desert Shield, the US Air Force deployed a mix of U-2 and TR-1 reconnaissance aircraft (essentially the same airplane, with different designations depending on whether they had been built for strategic reconnaissance or for the European theatre) to King Fahad Air Base in Taif, Saudi Arabia. The U-2/TR-1s being used at the end of the Cold War had been upgraded to carry a range of sensors that included film cameras, electro-optical sensors (essentially a TV camera on steroids), radars, and ELINT and SIGINT receivers. The most important of those sensors for Desert Shield/Desert Storm were the ones that could use a data-link to deliver their information in real-time. U-2s from the United States carried the SENIOR YEAR electro-optical sensor, while TR-1s from Europe carried the Advanced Synthetic Aperture Radar System (ASARS-2).
Since the Air Force had had no plans to deploy the U-2 to the Middle East, it was entirely unready to receive that information in the theater. To connect to a ground station by data-link (often called being “on tether”) the airplane needed to be within 220 miles of a ground station. Built for the Central European front, the TR-1/ASARS combination was designed to be “tethered” to a ground station in a bunker beneath an old missile maintenance facility (“Metro Tango”) near Hahn air base in West Germany (AW&ST, 4 June 1990). Without an equivalent ground station there was no way to use the radar in the Middle East.
Luckily, the US Army had wanted its own access to the ASARS picture and had built prototype mobile ground station, the Tactical Radar Correlator (TRAC), which could be deployed to Saudi Arabia. The SENIOR YEAR electro-optical system also had an experimental ground station van, code-named SENIOR BLADE, which went to Saudi Arabia too.
The Air Force was equally unprepared to process film from the U-2’s optical cameras. Before either the HR-239 (H-cam) or the Intelligence Reconnaissance Imagery System III (IRIS-III) could have their photos processed in theater the Air Force had to refurbish the Mobile Intelligence Processing Element (MIPE) that had been designed for use with the SR-71 and been mothballed when that airplane was taken out of service. (All these problems, and the eventual solutions, are described in the 9th Reconnaissance Wing’s history of U-2 operations during Desert Storm.)
The experience with Desert Storm and the collapse of the Soviet Union convinced the US military that it needed the tools to make use of reconnaissance systems like the U-2 in any region. By August 1991, the Air Force had already announced the creation of the Contingency Airborne Reconnaissance System (CARS), a twenty-seven shelter ground station that was established at Langley Air Force Base in 1992 to receive imagery and signals not just from U-2s but also from drones and other reconnaissance aircraft. Other ground stations, at Beale AFB in California and Osan in Korea, were established in 1994 and the whole program was renamed the Distributed Common Ground System in 1996. The Langley AFB station, known as Deployable Ground Station (DGS) 1, deployed to Guantanamo Bay and Saudi Arabia. The Beale station, DGS-2, were sent to Europe during the US/UN intervention in the Balkans.
The most important component of the multi-shelter DGS was the Mobile Stretch (MOBSTR) relay that transmitted signals from an “on tether” U-2 to somewhere else in the theater, or further away. MOBSTR was important because a DGS was big: in 1996 the Air Force said it would take seven C-5 Galaxy transports; by 2004 the number had ballooned to seventeen. Using the relay meant that more personnel could work from the US rather than in the theater of operations, substituting bandwidth for troops on the ground.
According to William M. Arkin’s new book, Unmanned, further impetus to keep the DGS in the continental US came from the Khobar Towers bombing in 1996. 24 members of DGS-1 were among the Air Force personnel killed or injured in the terrorist attack on US Air Force housing in Saudi Arabia. “Reachback,” as the use of staff in the US was called, only grew during the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. According to Air Force Magazine, only 90 of the 2,000 airmen assigned to DGS-1 and 2 were actually sent to the Middle East. The remainder, operating from Langley and Beale, made more than 30,000 intelligence reports and identified more than 1,000 targets during Operation Iraqi Freedom alone. The phenomenon became so widespread that by 2009 David Deptula, the Air Force deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) and a senior planner during the Gulf War air campaign, could argue for killing the term and replacing it with “distributed operations,” since so many ISR operations were spread over multiple sites around the world.
Arkin’s book has some idiosyncrasies that annoyed me, such as its repetitious references to the Epic of Gilgamesh. It won’t make Richard Whittle’s Predator or any of the other good recent books in this area obsolete. But it has some interesting things to say when it focuses not on platforms or policies, but on the middle-ground – budgeting, “black project” acquisition processes, and institutional politics – that lies between them and shapes how American has been fighting its war over the last fifteen years. Plus it gave me that link in the chain of how U-2 operations got spread across the whole world.