Operations Group blazes new trail during Operation Burnt Frost
By Col. Jay Raymond , 21st Space Wing commander
/ Published March 11, 2008
PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- As you may have heard from recent national news reports, just over three weeks ago, the president of the United States authorized the Navy to launch a missile from one of its Aegis cruisers with the purpose of intercepting a non-functioning U.S. National Reconnaissance Office satellite. With the satellite in its final orbits before re-entering the Earth's atmosphere, the mission was designed to destroy the satellite, thereby preventing unnecessary risk to those who might come into harms way if the satellite were to survive re-entry. While the Navy was in the headlines, they did not act alone. The innovative and disciplined efforts of members of the 21st Space Wing played a key role in the satellite intercept, otherwise known as Operation Burnt Frost.
As part of the wing's space control mission, members of the 21st Operations Group carried out a number of critical functions in support of this operation. These functions included charting the present position of the NRO satellite and plotting its anticipated path, predicting when and where the satellite would re-enter the Earth's atmosphere, and detecting and tracking each piece of debris created from the successful destruction of the satellite.
Tracking the satellite prior to the intercept and providing its pinpoint location to the Navy was the single most important factor in the intercept; however, there is more to the story that needs to be told. The performance of the units within 21st OG supporting Operation Burnt Frost was absolutely flawless. From the teamwork displayed in conjunction with Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.'s Joint Space Operations Center, the command and control agency for space surveillance operations, to the tactical innovation that took place in order to pull off such a complicated mission, this operation was a tremendous success and demonstrated why the 21st Space Wing is America's Space Superiority Wing.
One of the unique challenges in supporting the operation was that our operational systems were not designed to assist in the shoot-down of a satellite; however, with only one week's notice, our space surveillance units pulled operations manuals off the shelf, analyzed possible courses of action, and revised procedures to optimize our space situational awareness and give solid tracking data to JSPOC. These actions were absolutely critical to providing the accurate targeting data which the Navy used to successfully intercept the NRO satellite.
Also critical to the overall effort was the work of the 10th Space Warning Squadron at Cavalier Air Force Station, N.D. This unit provided a vivid example of the innovation and "get it done" attitude the 21st SW brings to the fight. Lt. Col. Keith Balts and his 10th SWS team came up with a great tactical plan that will undoubtedly be used as the benchmark for future operations. With Capt. Nicole Petrucci as lead weapons officer, the men and women of 10th SWS adapted their technical orders and leveraged new tactics, techniques and procedures to successfully handle the after effects of the satellite shoot down. They even developed a specialized checklist on how to react to the satellite as it broke up in space.
The Alternate Space Control Center at the 20th Space Control Squadron, Detachment 1, also played a key role before and after the shoot down. The detachment, located in Dahlgren, Va., provided critical pre-launch planning information to the Navy. This involved providing satellite location data to JSPOC who ended up passing this information on to our space surveillance sensors. After the intercept, their elite breakup team gave invaluable support to the JSPOC's debris tracking and cataloging efforts by providing in-depth analysis on how many objects remained on orbit -- a key ingredient to overall space situational awareness and manned spaceflight safety.
One of the biggest keys to the success of this operation was the advanced planning and additional training that took place prior to the intercept. This advanced planning ranged from breakup and special procedures training to communication drills with the JSPOC -- each designed to pique our unit's operational skill prior to the event. The 21st OG team also examined models of the satellite's flight path, noting that with the use of creative and "out-of-the box" techniques, they could maximize satellite and debris tracking efforts. Finally, the thorough readiness review conducted by 21st OG prior to the intercept was extremely important in fostering the joint awareness and communication necessary for our units around the world.
As you can imagine, real-time communication between units spread across the globe is a constant challenge. In order to bolster communications and increase overall success, Capt. Walt White from the 21st Operations Support Squadron flew to Vandenberg and set up a virtual chat room between JSPOC and participating 21st SW units. Capt. White was the linchpin, passing critical information between our units within this chat room.
Col. Chris Crawford, 21st OG commander, stated "In the 15-plus years since I first worked in the space surveillance business, this was by far the most innovative use of communication and collaboration between geographically separated units I have seen on an operational level. It was very exciting."
As part of this team effort, the 721st Mission Support Group also made significant contributions. They ensured communication links, circuits, and processors were functioning properly with backup capability and that any non-critical testing was halted. In addition, the 721st Communications Squadron initiated video teleconference and phone conference capabilities to enable a link between the NORAD/NORTHCOM commander, the Cheyenne Mountain Command Center and national decision makers.
The 21st SW's participation in Operation Burnt Frost was truly a team event. The effort, support and involvement from everyone involved proved to the world, even with decades old equipment, what we can do. What's even more exciting is how our role in this historic event reminded us of the part we play, not only in executing the 21st SW mission, but also in executing the Air Force Space Command and Air Force missions. All of the activities that took place leading up to the successful satellite intercept could not have been more in line with the AFSPC mission of delivering space and missile capabilities to America and its warfighting commands. In addition, our role in supporting the Air Force's mission of delivering sovereign options for the defense of the United States of America and its global interests was clearly evident.
The 21 SW's role in Operation Burnt Frost also reinforced several of Air Force Space Command's guiding principles ... principles which underpin our mission and vision. These include the following:
-- The USAF space mission serves joint forces, our Nation and the world at large
-- Space and ICBM forces are inherently global in their effect
-- Airmen are the core of America's space team
Again, putting together an operation of this complexity on such short notice was simply amazing. My personal thanks to all those who put in the extra hours and provided the unique skill sets that contributed to Operation Burnt Frost's success. I have no doubt that this effort will go down as one of the most successful events in the history of the 21st Space Wing.