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Widnall discusses Air Force and space systems

The US Air Force is on "an evolutionary path from an air and space force to a space and air force," Professor Sheila E. Widnall said in an April 22 talk on "Air Force Leadership in Space. "Space is inextricably linked to military operations."

Professor Widnall, the Abby Rocke-feller Mauze Professor of Aeronautics, served as secretary of the Air Force from 1993-97. She has just been elected to a four-year term as vice president of the National Academy of Engineers.

"I came into the Air Force just after Desert Storm -- the first space war," she recalled. Professor Widnall went on to describe the lessons of Desert Storm arising from the successes of space systems such as the cooperative targeting between the Patriot missile systems in the Gulf and space systems operated by Space Command in Colorado Springs, as well as the success, in the Persian Gulf and in Bosnia, of the MTI (moving target indicator) and of JSTARS.

"With JSTARS, we could identify Iraqi troops on the ground and, in Bosnia, when we suspected some of the mass graves were being tampered with by one of the factions, we could intercept movement towards the graves to preserve them for evidence," she said.

In general, Professor Widnall was enthusiastic about "Reachback" communications systems, such as those involving the U-2, in which the U-2 processing systems will be left at a base in California with the U-2 signal relayed by satellite to this facility, enabling "people in California to process data and relay it back to the theater, thus reducing the need to transport these people and equipment to the theater."

Professor Widnall said she is also "a big launch fan -- launch makes it all possible," and she described Air Force plans to leverage its operations in space by means of commercial activities, particularly with two partners, Boeing and Lockheed.

As for future "The Right Stuff"-style space operations, Professor Widnall commented, "I'm not a fan of manned space vehicles for military missions. We're taking people out of airplanes -- why put them in satellites?"

Current and future challenges facing the Air Force include integrating air and space operations into "one seamless single culture" and managing Global Positioning Systems (GPS) so they can "maintain connectivity for civilian airlines but keep adversaries from using GPS against the US or its allies. GPS is so easy to jam," she said.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 29, 1998.

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