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What’s your high ground: Operations

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- The 21st Space Wing, with its vast reach, has complex missions from here to Hawaii, Alaska to Alabama, and various points in between - 39 units located in eight countries to be exact.

With the challenge of providing flawless missile warning and space control operations comes the added challenge of communicating the many great things the wing's Airmen do every day.

To better explain the wing mission, Col. Chris Crawford, 21st SW commander, recast the wing mission and vision to clearly identify contributions to the nation.

Crawford unveiled the new wing mission and vision recently during his commander's conference with his group and squadron commanders, and during his commander's call for the wing. They are:

Mission: Operate and sustain global missile warning and space control capabilities and installations to dominate the high ground for America and its allies

Vision: America's most innovative and disciplined space wing -- leaders, globally postured to dominate the high ground

"I want to highlight the accomplishments, efforts, and sacrifices 21st Space Wing Airmen and Peterson Air Force Base contribute to the joint fight every day," Crawford said. "The wing is critical to national defense."

Crawford further broke down the wing mission into his four priorities including: supporting the current fight and leading the future fight, which will be addressed here; leading and taking care of our people; as well as innovation and discipline, which will be addressed in future articles.

As part of national defense, the 21st SW owns and operates 10 ground-based radar and optical telescope systems around the globe, which perform missile warning and space surveillance operations around the clock, 365 days a year. The data collected by these systems is used not only in the nation's vital missile warning/defense systems, but also for space situational awareness -- maintaining a "picture" of all objects in Earth's orbit and where they are located -- to allow for the safe and responsible use of space.

Crawford recently addressed some of the many ways 21st SW Airmen contribute to that mission by dominating their high ground in the following questions and answers.

How do the missions of the 21 SW contribute to national defense?
Our global missile warning capability includes the ability to rapidly and precisely detect, characterize and assess any missile threat to North America, Crawford said. This information is vital to our nation's security. It allows our leaders to immediately detect threats to North America and respond accordingly.

Our highly capable space surveillance sensors allow our nation continued freedom of access to space and are essential to our ability to protect our manned and unmanned space assets. We are tracking more than 22,000 spaceborne objects in orbit around the Earth, softball size and larger, traveling at speeds up to 17,500 mph. Without the space surveillance assets our wing brings to the fight, we'd be operating in the blind - unable to proactively protect space assets of America and our allies.

Additionally the 21st fields offensive and defensive counterspace capabilities that allow U.S. Strategic Command and other geographic combatant commanders to rapidly achieve flexible and versatile space superiority in support of theater campaigns. A prime example of defensive counterspace is the 16th Space Control Squadron located right here at Peterson AFB. This unit detects, characterizes, geolocates and reports on interference to critical U.S. and allied satellite communications links, allowing theater commanders to respond to threats appropriately and ensuring joint warfighters worldwide maintain critical access to space-based communications.

What is space situational awareness?
Space situational awareness is the continuous effort to detect, track, catalog and identify all objects in earth orbit. SSA is an essential foundation to achieving and maintaining space superiority.

SSA includes tracking the current position of an object in space, and also the ability to predict its exact position at any time in the future. Some space objects are capable of powered flight -- that is the ability to change their orbit by expending fuel. SSA sensors have the ability to detect these maneuvers and update position information accordingly. Additionally, objects in low Earth orbit will eventually lose their ability to maintain orbit and re-enter the Earth's atmosphere. SSA sensors monitor these objects and predict when and where an object will come back to Earth.

Other parts of SSA include space object identification and orbital safety.

Space object identification: Many of our sites have the capability to put energy on an object and produce a type of image of the satellite. This type of information is fed to intelligence agencies and is used to assess space objects in various ways.

Orbital safety: By tracking where all the orbiting objects are in space, we are able to predict when objects in space are on collision paths. This process is known as conjunction assessment and is pivotal to protecting our manned space systems and operational satellites. It provides the warning time necessary to maneuver out of harm's way.

How does the 21st SW support the warfighter?
Joint warfighters are critically reliant on space capabilities to take the fight to the enemy, he said. Our wing capabilities protect these assets, ensuring the full brunt of space capability is brought to bear. Of course, the U.S. and our allies are not the only one heavily reliant on space systems. Our offensive space control capabilities can be used to achieve effects in support of our commanders and warfighters.

How does the 21st SW support the average citizen?
Beyond the warfighter, this space surveillance data is also needed for what many of us take for granted on a daily basis. The capabilities such as precision timing, navigation, communications, weather imagery, air traffic control, banking, television, cell phones and much more, all would be in peril if the 21st was not dominating the high ground daily.

Who uses the data the wing collects?
There are many customers that benefit from the space surveillance, missile warning and missile defense data that we provide" he said. "The core center for our missile warning data runs through the Missile Warning Center at Cheyenne Mountain AFS.

The space surveillance data our space control units provide is routed to the Joint Space Operations Center at Vandenberg AFB in California, and is shared with many Department of Defense service organizations, U.S. government agencies such as NASA, foreign governments and space agencies and commercial entities. Think of it as a neighborhood watch: you have a vested interest in the house down the street that is on fire, not just out of a moral altruistic interest, but because if not controlled it will soon be your own house that is in danger.

What does a space warning squadron do?
Although each site's coverage and capabilities may vary, one thing remains the same - each site must detect an incoming missile, assess the situation, and disseminate a report to higher headquarters, all within 60 seconds of the event. A typical report includes launch time, launch location, impact time, impact location, and number of missiles. Missile warning data is sent to USSTRATCOM and the National Military Command Center, where it is fused with other data to formulate response options for national decision makers.

Why does the wing have so many geographically separated units?
The global posture of the 21st is driven by its missile warning and space control missions. For our missile warning mission, the end effect of the strategic placement of our units is an overlapping cocoon of missile warning protection that encompasses North America and parts of Europe. For our space surveillance missions, many of the remote locations were selected due to specific geographic attributes and ability to view different portions of the earth's high value orbits.

Each day we perform thousands of operations around the world to keep the global structure together, he said. I want everyone in the 21st Space Wing to examine what they bring to the fight. You all dominate your own personal high ground in a different way, but without your efforts, the wing mission would not succeed.

Where does the wing need to focus?
We need to focus on supporting the current fight and leading our mission areas in posturing to respond to any future hostile contingencies, Crawford said. We must continue to lead change and innovation in the effective and efficient employment and modernization of our weapon systems and contingency operations.

So as all 21st SW Knights execute their invaluable daily missions, Crawford has two simple questions:

"What is your high ground, and how will you dominate it?"

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