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Test Control Flight keeps defense exercises from becoming reality


In November 1979, a test of new software for Attack Warning and Attack Assessment was scheduled at Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station, Colorado.

The test called for a World War III simulation utilizing an off-line backup system. Hundreds of artificial missile launch messages were sent from both radars and satellites as if the United States were under a full-scale attack. But, when the scenario was run, testers ran it on the real, operational system.

Military command centers did not realize the launch messages were simulations, so they notified the President and the U.S. began posturing nuclear response forces. The Union of Soviet Socialists Republic detected the elevated U.S. activity and responded likewise, nearly starting a real World War III.

Within months the Test Control Integration Directorate, now known as the Test Control Flight, was established with the mission of preventing such accidents from bringing about nuclear disaster.

“What we make sure never happens, is that national defense agencies never confuse test and exercise environments and data with real world data,” said Jeff Robertson, 721st Communications Squadron, Test Control Flight director.

The flight does not test software nor hardware, said Robertson, but rather sets up cyber environments - like a digital arena – where tests can be conducted without the danger of being released into real world systems like the situation in 1979.

Since its inception, Test Control flight is an integral part of the successful delivery of many operational mission systems and capabilities supporting national defense. This includes substantial upgrades to survivable communications systems, space-based radar satellite ground stations, and ground-based radars.

Robertson’s team operationally reconfigures the Nation’s only air defense, space surveillance, and missile warning mission systems so radars and operations centers from various locations around the globe, for example, can safely participate in the test or exercise.

“We establish and sustain the cyber environment that allows test organizations to execute their missions,” Robertson said.

A minimum of six people from the 18 member Test Control Flight participate in any given scenario. Depending upon the organizations participating in the test or exercise that number could be higher he said.

The flight consistently directs, implements and oversees about 150 test and exercise system configurations each year. A handful of those are national defense exercises and involve the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other senior decision makers. All of the test and exercise scenarios are overseen from CMAFS.

“We establish a voice conference call with all of the participants,” said Robertson. “That way everybody knows what everyone else is doing for the duration of the exercise.”

With the purpose of directly supporting national defense objectives, Robertson said his team strives for perfection. With the stakes so high, he said their standard is zero errors during every test and exercise.

“That’s why if national defense agencies don’t see our test data, we’ve done our job,” he said. “If my organization does its job correctly, what we do is completely transparent. When we do our job well nobody knows.”

Historical evidence seems to stand as a witness to how well the Test Control Flight does its job. Since it was established in 1980, no anomalous incident has happened during any test or exercise the flight has overseen.

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