First Reserve space control squadron protects satellite links

  • Published
  • By Capt. Joseph Fixemer
  • 380th SPCS
A recent edition of the Air Force Times cited Central Command's increasing demand for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, such as the Predator and Global Hawk, to maintain operations tempo in its area of responsibility. Increasing patrol orbits will require more than just qualified pilots and senior operators, it will also require secure and reliable satellite communications.

As the use of satellite communications increases, monitoring and protecting critical SATCOM links becomes the job of the reserve Airmen from the 380th Space Control Squadron and their active-duty Air Force counterpart, the 16 SPCS. And protecting those signals is especially important as interference becomes more common.

"SATCOM allows our military to be fast, light, lean and lethal all over the world and at the same time," said Tech. Sgt. Laura Nicholson, NCOIC of the 380th's Weapons and Tactics Flight, "We have to protect those links."

Predator and Global Hawk operations rely on SATCOM to remotely operate those aircraft and their sensor suites from the continental United States or other locations. And yet, this is just one example of the myriad ways in which America's military leverages SATCOM to help maintain a battle rhythm unequalled by any other nation in the world. From the highest levels of leadership, down to the individual soldier, SATCOM has become the critical link to success on the modern battlefield.

Department of Defense demand for SATCOM bandwidth has grown over 4,000 percent since the 1991 Persian Gulf War, and the emergence of "network-centric warfare" guarantees that demand will only continue to grow.

"Jamming SATCOM isn't particularly difficult to do," notes Lt. Col. Michael Assid, commander of the 380th. "Any SATCOM terminal is potentially a jammer."

"The only barrier to entry for a potential adversary is cost, but a half-million dollar investment will net you a pretty robust tactical SATCOM jammer...and you can buy all the gear off the Internet." said Tech. Sgt. Scott Westfall, the 380th's mission assurance operations flight chief.

As a Reserve Associate Unit the 380th's Airmen train and deploy alongside their counterparts with the 16 SPCS. Unlike their 16th counterparts, however, members of the 380th aren't tied to a regular permanent change-of-station cycle.

"We have the luxury developing expertise over the long haul," said Maj. Shakir Khan, commander of the 380th's Operations Support Flight. "Our founding cadre all came from the Space Aggressors, and we are a selectively manned squadron. We only hire Airmen who are already electronic warfare and SATCOM savvy, if not outright experts. Then, we get to keep them in the mission for six to ten years."

By retaining this "corporate knowledge", the 380th ensures mission expertise never falls off when her sister squadron's most experienced Airmen move on to other assignments.

"It's a great combination," said Lt. Col. Assid. "The Reserve squadron brings stability to the mission, since all our Airmen are members of the local community and have years of experience in electronic warfare. The 16th has access to the Regular Air Force budget, so they own and fund sustainment for all the mission systems. More importantly, the 16th also covers half of the manning requirements for our combined deployments."

"The Air Force gets the best of both worlds," added Maj. Khan. "Mission effectiveness and low cost. Our annual operating budget is about $60,000 for a squadron with 119 personnel. That's a miniscule investment to cover fifty percent of a global, deployed mission's manning - and expert manning, at that."

Since January 2006, members of the 380th (then, still a flight under the 26th Space Aggressor Squadron) have deployed with their 16 SPCS counterparts to support Operation SILENT SENTRY, a SATCOM jammer detection and geolocation capability deployed to CENTCOM since July 2005.

Improved systems are currently under development through the Rapid Attack Identification Detection Reporting System acquisition program.

"RAIDRS will take our SILENT SENTRY capability and expand it to a global scale," said Maj. Mark Stafford, the 380th Combat Operations flight commander. "There are still a number of technical and procedural issues to work through, but it won't be long before we have worldwide, 24/7 monitoring of U.S. SATCOM links."

Other challenges face the 380th.

"There's a bit of a cultural hurdle to get over for those who grew up in the 'space business,'‟ notes Lt. Col. Robert Claude, the 380th's operations officer.
"What we do is, fundamentally, electronic warfare. Many folks look at our mission and try to apply a 'space ops' construct, and we just don't fit that mold. We're in the cat and mouse game of EW, with a thinking adversary on the distant end doing everything in his power to keep from being found."

True mission expertise and operational art spell the difference between success and failure. "I always use this analogy," said Lt Col. Assid, "When two combat aircraft close to the merge and get into a turning fight, neither pilot is flipping through a checklist to figure out how to kill the other jet. They rely on skill, years of training, and instinct. It's the same thing in our mission: you have to better than the other guy to win.
"'Don't lean on the gear,' is what I tell our Airmen. 'Use the Mark-1 organic computer between your ears and think.'"

Perhaps the greatest obstacle facing the 380th is recruiting.

"The best candidates for our squadron and mission are almost always very highly paid SATCOM and EW industry experts," said Senior Master Sgt. Robert Cherry, the 380th's squadron superintendent. "It's not always easy finding folks willing to take a fifty percent pay cut to deploy away from family for months at a time. Fortunately, short of Presidential mobilization, our folks will only deploy once every two to three years, and that helps."

"The Airmen we need are out there," he adds. "It's just going to take some time to find them."