By Staff Sgt. Stacy Foster
50th Space Wing Public Affairs
Deploying to serve alongside Navy Seals, Marines, fighter pilots and other Special Forces personnel would be intimidating for most, and Capt. Wade McGrew was no exception.
The 22nd Space Operations Squadron Network crew commander strived to earn the respect of these warriors during his deployment where he served as the Special Operations Forces Space officer in charge. In this position, he also served as the National Assets direct liaison and program manager of all Blue Forces tracking.
“I was prepared for a deployment of power-point updates and shift changeover briefings,” he said. “Imagine my surprise when I was asked to sit in on a target-planning meeting during my first week.”
Through use of Blue Forces tracking, satellite communication, GPS, and missile warning systems, Captain McGrew gave the target planners the unique advantage of the ultimate high ground — space.
GPS was used extensively for mission planning and execution as well as for delivery of guided weapons. GPS provided position, navigation and precise timing for nearly all missions, not just air operations.
Accurate information was critical because during a 12-hour shift, missions could be initiated, declined, adjusted, signed off, planned briefed and accomplished as if they had been planned for months.
The importance and relevance of the entire task force, not just pilots or ground operators, was evident in daily briefings. Missions were given the green light or reconsidered based on GPS accuracy. Sometimes entire schedules had to be reworked due to unfavorable combat weather reports.
“My role quickly expanded on the day I was brought into my first planning meeting,” said Captain McGrew. “The ‘space guy’ was now an intricate link in the planning process.”
Blue Forces tracking is a GPS enabled system that provides military commanders and forces with location information about friendly and hostile military forces. Through icons, the color blue is typically used to designate friendly forces while red is used for enemies, and green or yellow are used for neutral forces.
“Given any coordinates of any potential mission, I was able to locate and track items of interest in the vicinity,” said Captain McGrew. “This capability was huge. Nearby threats or potential additional objectives could often be identified.”
In the past, BFT was primarily used for convoy monitoring. Vehicles were required to have their BFT device’s capability confirmed by the space OIC before leaving base. The vehicles were then tracked until their return to base.
While tracking convoy movements was rewarding, there was much more to be exploited for use in the fight.
“Our system allowed for near real-time updates that were much faster than previous systems. Utilizing that capability while integrating the ability to track the signals of all friendly forces in our area, paid huge dividends,” Captain McGrew said.
All service branches in the area of responsibility were using some form of BFT, and teams were able to quickly coordinate and provide support to those who needed it.
“We were able to locate the nearest friendly asset in that vicinity and request support,” Captain McGrew said. “The Ops director would watch our guys move in on an objective via a Predator feed. He would give orders to our ground operations officers (the SEALS that I sat beside) while simultaneously pinging me for the location of our forces.”
In addition to tracking people and equipment, the Air Force provided enemy missile launch detection, through the theater missile warning systems used to detect, track and report all launches in the AOR.
“Our system showed the originating location of a launch, the projected impact point and the actual trajectory of the object.”
In many cases, neighboring countries conducting test launches would be detected and tracked.
“Although these particular launches followed their expected courses and fell harmlessly away from our location, we were extremely prepared for any deviations thanks to our ultimate ‘eye in the sky.’”
To provide these unique capabilities and more, the Air Force has been increasing the number of deployments of their space officers to provide space experts in the AOR who are instrumental in realizing the full capabilities space has in the fight.
Historically, space operators have deployed a small number since they are “deployed-in-place” — or, able to perform their mission remotely. However, as space operations have increased in the AOR, the need for space expertise on the ground has increased.
Since 2007, the Air Force has deployed 315 officers and184 enlisted space operators to meet these demands.
“Regardless of background, we worked as a team and we accomplished the mission,” Captain McGrew said. “The importance of space assets was never overlooked and its contributions to the front line were evident.”