By Dr. David Bullock , 21st Space Wing Office of History
/ Published May 16, 2017
PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. --
The 21st Space Wing celebrates its silver anniversary this year at Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado. Before becoming a space wing, however, Air Force units carrying the designation of “21st” previously engaged in flying.
The 21st Bombardment Group, the 21st Fighter Group, the 21st Fighter-Bomber Wing, the 21st Composite Wing and the 21st Tactical Fighter Wing are the lineal ancestors of the 21st SW. They flew a variety of aircraft from P-52 Mustangs to F-15E Strike Eagles between 1942-1991. Then, on May 15, 1992, the 21st SW activated under the banner of Air Force Space Command. The future would now be in space.
The 21st SW emblem originally was approved in 1957 for the 21st Fighter-Bomber Wing. Air Staff bestowed the emblem upon the wing when it activated as a space wing in 1992. The blue shield represents the infinite sky, the area in which the Wing operates, while the sword represents strength and readiness to do the mission.
“Iron Mike,” 21st SW mascot, dates back to the 21st Composite Wing in 1966. Iron Mike came to the 21st SW in 1996 after winning a hard-fought contest to become the mascot of the new space wing. Iron Mike represents the “warrior ethos,” or “eternal warrior.” Iron Mike is now a champion of space control in the largest space wing in the world.
From 1996 until 2010, Iron Mike accompanied wing teams competing at Guardian Challenge where Air Force Space Command's premier space and cyberspace teams compete at Peterson AFB.
The 21st SW has been involved with several missions including the Defense Satellite Program, a constellation of geosynchronous satellites equipped with infrared detectors to help locate and identify ballistic missile and nuclear testing activities around the world. The wing operated DSP sites at Woomera, Australia and Aurora, Colorado, while mobile satellite communications were conducted with support from Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico. DSP began transitioning to the follow-on technology known as the Space-Based Infra-Red System during the late 1990s. The Wing’s association with DSP ended in 2004 when the system transferred to the 460th Space Wing at Buckley Air Force BAse, Aurora, Colorado.
The wing also operated the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System radars at Clear Air Force Station,, Alaska, and Thule Air Base, Greenland while maintaining an allied partnership with a third BMEWS site at RAF Fylingdales, England. The 21st SW upgraded the legacy system to the more capable Solid State Phased Array Radar system by 2001 and began transitioning to the newer Upgraded Early Warning Radar System in 2007. The UEWR upgrade included the former Phased Array Warning System radars at Beale Air Force Base, California and Cape Cod Air Force Station, Massachusetts. The Perimeter Acquisition Radar Characterization System situated at Cavalier Air Force Station, North Dakota, serves as part of the Sea Launched Ballistic Missile warning network and covers the central Arctic region.
Throughout the 25-year history of the 21st SW several systems associated with the space surveillance and space control mission have operated or are still in operation. Two passive radar systems, the Deep Space Tracking System and the Low Altitude Space Surveillance System provide additional global coverage as part of the space control mission.
DSTS operated from Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, Osan Air Base, Korea, Griffiss Air Force Base, New York, and at RAF Edzell, Scotland. LASS operated from Missawa Air Base, Japan and RAF Feltwell, England. Due to increased capabilities and coverage in other systems, however, planners determined that the passive side of the mission was no longer critical. Consequently, the squadrons associated with LASS closed down by 1997, while the squadrons associated with DSTS closed their doors in 2002.
The 21st SW also inherited the Ground-Based Electro-Optical Deep Space Surveillance System sites at Socorro, New Mexico, Diego Garcia, British Indian Ocean Territory, and Maui, Hawaii. New advanced electro-optical telescopic cameras replaced the older Baker-Nunn cameras in the arena of space tracking and allow deep-space surveillance and space-object identification. Further augmentation of the space surveillance network led to the installation of the Transportable Optical System in Morõn Air Base, Spain. This system attained full operating capability in 1998 and became known as the Morõn Optical Surveillance System in 1999. Upgrades continued until the associated unit deactivated in 2013.
One critical subset of space control is the concept of counter space surveillance, which came to the wing in 2000. As the realm of space became more congested and contested, the 21st SW evolved its mission into space control by adding the 4th Space Control Squadron on April 11, 2006. This new technology continues to be refined as wing units that support this new technology are frequently deployed to various corners of the world.
Two events at the turn of the millennium in 2000 heralded new changes and challenges. The first was the potential computer meltdown known as “Y2K.” Military members of the Russian Federation worked at Peterson AFB with their American counterparts as a joint team to prevent a world catastrophe. This might have occurred if missile warning and other critical world computers couldn’t read the sequence of zeroes that would herald midnight at the turnover between centuries, thereby causing those computers to go haywire. Fortunately, this turned out to be a non-event without operational impacts to the wing or the world.
A different disaster, however, did hit the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, that resulted in the deaths of 3,000 people. For the first time in its history North American Aerospace Defense Command and United States Northern Command closed the massive blast doors at Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station, Colorado. In subsequent years, natural disasters also challenged the 21st SW including the Waldo Canyon wildfire in 2012, Black Forest Fires in 2013, Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station mudslide in 2013, and the massive hailstorm in 2016.
In response to world events and a changing strategic environment today, the 21st SW concentrates on five operational mission areas: missile warning, missile defense, space situational awareness, space control and homeland defense. The wing is focusing on the future with the concept of the Space Mission Force.
The 21st SW has five groups, 17 wing staff agencies and is the most geographically dispersed wing in the Air Force with components located as far away as Greenland, above the Arctic Circle and Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean.
What will the future hold over the next 25 years? The future depends on the people who work, hope, dream, and innovate.