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By Griffin Swartzell, 21st Space Wing Public Affairs
/ Published August 08, 2019
Colonel Matthew Cantore, 21st Operations Group commander, recently took time out his schedule to share a little about himself, his family and his priorities as a leader. He’s a native of Guilderland, New York. He and wife Laura, originally from Brandon, Manitoba, Canada, have been married for 17 years. They have three children, ages 14, 12 and 7.
So tell us a little bit about yourself.
Colonel Matthew Cantore:
I grew up in upstate New York, near Albany. My mom and dad worked for the state of New York, as did many people in the Albany area. So I never moved growing up. We settled into a house when I was three months old, and my parents still live in that house today. It's fascinating to see the differences between the life that I had growing up and my own family’s journey.
Coming out of high school, I knew I wanted to do something with space, but wasn’t sure how I could make a career out of that interest. I had a first cousin, Shelley, whose husband, Skip, was a member of the U.S. Air Force. He was stationed at [now-closed] Griffiss AFB, New York. We were talking at a family event, and he said, ‘Hey, you want to go to space? You should consider the U.S. Air Force Academy.’
I had never thought of the military up to that time. So I took a look, and found that USAFA actually had a space academic program unlike any of the other schools. I realized it offered more than just a physics or astronomy focus. You were actually preparing to execute a mission. I thought this really could open doors to doing something in NASA or the military space community. And I also enjoyed the fact that I could do something to support our country. I was a Boy Scout growing up, so I believed that serving the nation was important, but I had never really thought about the military, much less the Air Force.
Fast forward from there, I applied and was accepted at USAFA. I went to orientation in April of 1993. I remember going to the noon meal formation, and there was a flyby of a B-1B Lancer, flanked by two F-16 Fighting Falcons and dragged by a KC-135 Stratotanker, all doing a low-altitude pass. I was sold. It didn’t hurt that New York was cold and full of snow, and on that Colorado spring day it was 75 degrees and sunny, and Pikes Peak was gleaming. So I signed up at that point, and the rest is history. I've very much enjoyed my time serving the nation and working in this great space community ever since.
I'm glad you had the opportunity to return here. Let's talk about your priorities in command. What's most important to you?
For me, there are three priorities. Number one is adapting for the future fight. We absolutely have to be focused on getting the mission done today. I think we do an amazing job with that task, with our men and women supporting the space situational awareness, missile warning, missile defense and the space electronic warfare missions. But I'm really looking at the future, making sure that we are poised to protect and defend our vital space assets that are so critical to our way of peace and our way of war.
Number two is preparing our space warfighters and developing them. This is probably the most exciting time that I’ve seen in my career for the space warfighting community. We have the stand up of United States Space Command, and we have the discussion about major organizational changes for space in the Air Force. I want to ride that wave in terms of sharing the excitement and helping to prepare our own men and women for that mission. And when I say men and women, I mean not only the officers and the enlisted, but also our civilian members and our contractors who are all part of the space family. We all work on this together. I'm very focused on making sure that we develop the most cohesive and ready team to be able to perform that mission.
My third and final priority is making sure we take care of our Airmen and their families, wherever they are. The 21st OG is global. We have sites around the world. So we have to remember that our people, they're not all here. We need to make sure that they don't feel lost, that they're still part of the 21st Space Wing. In some cases, because of the remote nature of some of the sites, the families are dislocated from the military members. I want to make sure those families also get the support they deserve from our Air Force.
What do you hope to bring to your group specifically?
Specifically, I'm coming with an outside perspective. My very first assignment in the Air Force was in the 21st OG. I was an operator at the 13th Space Warning Squadron at Clear AFS, Alaska, and I operated a system that no longer exists. It was the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System with the space fence and the tracking radar. We've since moved on to a more modern system up there. But I've been away from the 21st OG for many years. I've done a lot of planning, both at U.S. Air Forces Central Command and for the Joint Chiefs of Staff supporting the men and women doing the space electronic warfare mission. So with that, I bring in a fresh set of eyes and a new perspective to the group. I plan to make sure that we're giving a good once over to all the missions. We’ve got a big restructure that is starting in the 21st SW. I'll be leading the charge for how we set up space electronic warfare for the future. I also plan to bring reinvigorated focus to both the missile warning and missile defense and the space situational awareness missions.
How do you think the stand up of U.S. Space Command will affect your day-to-day operations?
Day to day, it's going to feel very seamless. The missions we will perform in the future will be the same as what we do today. However, I'm excited because I think it's going to bring an invigorated focus and an effort to really boost the level of interest, all the way up to the President, by having a new unified combat command focused on space.
Speaking of helping prepare and develop your Airmen, do you have a suggested reading list for them? Anything you think they should read?
I like some of the classics, some books focused on our history. One of my favorites is Catch-22, by Joseph Heller. I like the humor that's in it, but I also think that it helps you understand the military organization. Certainly, the characters are developed such that you can enjoy them and see the satire while learning a few things about what not to do in an organization.
I absolutely would implore all our folks to read the National Defense Strategy. That is a must read for all of our Airmen.
Beyond that, I like reading books about organizational structure. Things that are maybe a little outside the normal Air Force reading, because I'm interested in how other people do the impossible and succeed at it.
Would you say it's a way to bring in thinking that wouldn't necessarily be within the typical wheelhouse of Air Force thinking? Like another outside tool?
I think the Air Force has become much more accepting of alternative ways of getting things done. We've come back and said that there's not one right way to develop a system or to lead an organization, so there's much more openness in terms of what we're willing to accept. With that, it's a great opportunity for us to step back and ask if we’re leading the organization in the most effective and appropriate way forward for 2019 and the 2020s around the corner. It's a great chance for us to use modern leadership and modern acquisition, to really bring the people, the mission and the tools they need to perform those functions all together.
Modern thinking for modern success.
Absolutely. You need to look at the juxtaposition of the way things have always been done versus the future. I'm not going to say the modern ways are absolutely superior. There's some benefit of how things were done in the past. But I’m trying to bring the two together and figure out what works for us in our unique situation in the Air Force, and also at this time in the world.
What has been the best experience thus far in your career?
The best experience is not a singular event. It's all the people I have had the great honor of meeting, working with, serving beside and also becoming friends with. I like to say that in this Air Force, we're family, and I honestly believe that. That has been the best experience. I would not trade all the people that I've had the chance of coming in contact with for anything. And it's been truly fantastic.