By Scott Prater
When it opened for business in 1985, the installation now known as Schriever Air Force Base didn’t operate any satellites at all.
During the following few years, as operations floors were constructed, satellite control operations slowly transferred from Onizuka Air Force Station, Calif.
Falcon AFS was originally planned to be a small, operations focused installation, with most of its support functions coming from nearby Peterson AFB. That all had changed by 1992, when Air Force leaders decided neighborhood encroachment wouldn’t pose a problem on the rolling foothills east of Colorado Springs — and the 50th Space Wing took root.
“We controlled roughly 20 Global Positioning System satellites, a few weather vehicles and some communications satellites,” said 50 SW Historian Randy Saunders. “We operated around 40 satellites at the time.”
Nearly twenty years later, the sheer number of satellites and systems operated by the 50 SW has grown by at least a third.
With the recent addition of six Defense Meteorological Satellite Program satellites and three of the most technologically advanced satellite systems ever imagined during the past year, the 50 SW has entered an era of unprecedented expansion and operations tempo.
“The 50th Operations Group has a greater and more diverse mission set than in any time in its history,” said Col. John Shaw, 50 OG commander. “And we’re rising to the occasion.”
Shaw should know, he’s worked at Schriever in one capacity or another for many of the past 20 years, serving here as a lieutenant during the early 1990s and later as a squadron commander.
Twenty years ago, the 1st Space Operations Squadron held the mantle as Schriever’s largest squadron, conducting GPS launch, early orbit and anomaly resolution as well as operating Defense Meteoroligical Satellite Program satellites and a few Defense Support Program satellites. The 2 SOPS conducted day-to-day operations on what was then a very small constellation of vehicles. The 3 SOPS controlled a small number of MILSATCOM satellites and 4 SOPS didn’t even exist yet.
By the turn of the new century 3 SOPS had taken on the Defense Satellite Communication System constellation.
Today, 3 SOPS Airmen also operate the follow-on system to DSCS, the Wideband Global SATCOM system.
“Each one of these satellites is more powerful in terms of capacity than the entire DSCS constellation,” Shaw said. “That’s how fast we jump ahead in technology. I went away for three years, came back and now see that we have three of these WGS satellites, with more on the way soon.”
While 3 SOPS has switched gears to a more modern, technologically advanced system, 4 SOPS is in the midst of a significant technological jump as well, as the follow-on to the Milstar system moves toward operational status. The first Advanced Extremely High Frequency satellite is set to reach orbit later this year. Like WGS to DSCS, AEHF represents another advancement that will improve communications capacity and capability exponentially.
Most are well versed in 2 SOPS’ mission as they operate the Global Positioning System.
“I think people everywhere are starting to realize how much space affects their lives,” Saunders said. “From navigational tools, to banking and finance — space is involved in practically everything.”
With the launch of the first GPS IIF satellite last year, 2 SOPS has taken control of the next generation of GPS satellites. The squadron is set to control several more GPS IIFs in the next two years, before moving up to the GPS block III, tentatively scheduled for launch in 2014.
“This truly is an unprecedented mission set for the 50 SW,” Shaw said. “However, what 1 SOPS is doing has opened up a whole new vista for us here. We took on satellite control authority of TacSat-3 last year. That’s the first ever intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance asset to come to the wing and also the first Space Based Space Surveillance satellite, which surveys the heavens and improves our space situational awareness.”
The expansion for 1 SOPS doesn’t end there.
The squadron also assumed SCA of the Advanced Technology Risk Reduction satellite, a former Missile Defense Agency payload, with space situational awareness capabilities. Its fourth anticipated ISR platform, Operationally Responsive Space-1, launched on June 29 and should be operational soon.
All told the 50 OG currently controls 61 satellites, by far the most in its history. With ORS-1, GPS IIF-2, and AEHF-1 expected to become operational in the next few months, that number will likely reach 64 by year’s end. The next WGS and AEHF satellites are due to launch early next year, so the pace will continue.
This news comes with some clear challenges. For one, the 50 OG won’t be gaining any new operators, managers or support personnel.
“We are operating more satellites today, with drastically increased complexity, in an ever more contested and congested operational environment, with noticeably less personnel than we had even 10 years ago,” said Lt. Col. Jean Eisenhut, former 3 SOPS commander, in an interview earlier this summer. “But, the increased operations tempo has also brought about new command and control systems with extensive automation capabilities, which have the potential to reduce operator workload.”
Eisenhut hinted that determining the right balance of operator control and automated system control is critical in order to best utilize these capabilities.
“Our automation capabilities are driving us to develop space professionals here, something the command and the Air Force is counting on,” she said. “For 3 SOPS in particular, we are working through reduced manning by redesigning the operational crew construct (at Vandenberg AFB), reallocating and streamlining training requirements between in-house and the school house — all to put even more emphasis on each individual’s weapon system expertise, while at the same time ensuring operations support functions.”
With such a jump in operations tempo, Shaw points out that the importance of the 50 SW and its mission set to the warfighter, to national security and to human society, has never been greater.
“We’ve been known here at Schriever for excellence in flying satellites since the late 1980s,” he said. “But times have changed — just flying satellites well is not enough. We need to also be experts at defending and responding to threats against our systems, and above all to ensure we’re providing decisive space effects wherever they are needed across the world.”