By Dave Smith
21st Space Wing Public Affairs staff writer
PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colorado — Two years after taking command of the Air Force’s largest geographical wing, Col. John Shaw, 21st Space Wing commander, is moving on to a new assignment. The change of command takes place June 12.
Shaw’s new duties will be as deputy operations director for U.S. Strategic Command headquarters at Offutt Air Force Base, near Omaha, Nebraska. He returns to the Omaha area where he was previously assigned from 2008-’10.
When Shaw took the helm of the 21st Space Wing July 26, 2013, he knew how geographically separated it was, but it really didn’t set in until he was on site. The wing operates around the globe with five groups, wing staff agencies and 38 units in 21 locations spanning seven countries over 13 time zones.
“One thing I realized was the global nature of what the wing does,” Shaw said. “Any day we can be in Thule above the Arctic Circle or in Florida, then working on an issue with a telescope installment in the Indian Ocean.”
Providing leadership involved with commanding a truly global wing required extensive travel, something that caught Shaw off guard. He spent a great deal of time traveling to the various groups and conducting command visits.
“One of the best parts of my job is going out to see the Airmen, including in theater as well,” he said.
Shaw said during his time here, the wing moved to the next level on a couple of mission areas, and space situational awareness is one of them. A working group dedicated to the issue directed efforts toward discovering better ways of tracking space debris.
“They’ve taken mission capabilities to a new level,” Shaw said.
At the beginning of his tenure, Shaw was faced with one of his greater leadership challenges right out of the gate, and it involved one of the more well-known pieces of the wing: Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station. And it started with a landslide, literally.
“It was an apocalyptic situation with eight feet of mud,” he said. “We are still recovering from it, but when it is all said and done it will be better.” Additionally, he pointed out this took place while more aspects of the wing mission were being moved into the Mountain.
After only a few months on the job, he and his team had to come up with a plan to deal with reaching limits on a severely reduced budget. He marked handling that situation alone as a remarkable challenge. At the same time the Air Force Space Surveillance System, also known as the Space Fence, was slated to be shut down and he had to oversee that task as well.
“I think the wing did a terrific job… to do it on time and the way (senior leaders) wanted,” Shaw said.
Part way into his assignment Shaw and his leadership team also had to navigate the wing through sequestration and force management issues. Those serious fiscal and personnel issues placed upon the wing provided an opportunity for it to shine.
“It took a lot of effort and leadership to navigate through it,” he said.
Among successes as commander Shaw counted partnerships with the city and with young students as some of the most notable. Working with local emergency management teams on things like the SkyFall, a mass-casualty exercise, is a good example of the relationship the Air Force has with the community, he said. Other training and partnership opportunities with groups like the El Paso County Sheriff Department and other area law enforcement groups also demonstrate that relationship.
He also counts his involvement with the Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments as a plus.
“It’s a great way to let the local community know the needs of the base,” he said. “I think we are fortunate to be in one of the best communities you can be in for a military installation.” The natural beauty of the area along with the positive nature of the city itself keeps Airmen happy and healthy, and that makes Shaw happy.
The 21st Space Wing supports 53 tenant organizations and has a significant economic impact on the area. Small business contracting is a component of the overall impact Peterson AFB has on the local community. The aggregate impact is about $1.3 billion due to the large number of retirees, salaries from the employees, various contracts and related activity that comes with having a large employer like the Air Force in the area.
“Colorado Springs is the space capitol of the world. Sometimes it is missed what these groups do on behalf of their country and the world with GPS and tracking space trash,” Shaw said. “It is something for the community to be aware and proud of.”
Bringing the STARBASE Academy to Peterson is something else he is proud of because it teaches students about science, technology, engineering and mathematics in an exciting way to increase interest in the STEM fields.
“What better place to do that than at the 21st Space Wing?” he asked. “I am proud of how we partner with the school system.”
Since activity in space is not decreasing, Shaw said the wing will only play a more important role as time goes on. From the view of national security, missile warning and missile defense the need for greater diversity in mission capabilities is not going away.
“Gen. Hyten said people are threatening us in our ability to use space, so space control is important. When you add it all up we’re going to have a pretty full plate here at the 21st Space Wing,” Shaw said.
Heading to Nebraska will not remove thoughts of Colorado Springs from Shaw’s memory any time soon. Since he first came to the Air Force Academy as an 18-year-old student he has fond memories of his times here.
“I don’t think any of my experiences will top this, being commander at the 21st Space Wing,” Shaw said. “And what I will remember most is all the Airmen I got to serve.”