16th SPCS: Keeping lines of communication open

Tech Sgt. Robert Hicks, 16th SPCS flight chief and maintainer, makes adjustments on a piece of equipment Nov. 3, 2017, at Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado. The 16th SPCS uses such equipment to defend access to the space domain by identifying, characterizing, and geolocating specific signals broadcast from many sources. (Courtesy photo)

Tech Sgt. Robert Hicks, 16th SPCS flight chief and maintainer, makes adjustments on a piece of equipment Nov. 3, 2017, at Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado. The 16th SPCS uses such equipment to defend access to the space domain by identifying, characterizing, and geolocating specific signals broadcast from many sources. (Courtesy photo)

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- Whether one attributes it to Napoleon Bonaparte or Frederick the Great, the old saying says “an army marches on its stomach.” A modern day twist on the adage might be “an army marches on its communications.”

With GPS leading the way, modern military forces rely upon satellite signals to guide them in fulfilling a plethora of missions. The 16th Space Control Squadron, located on Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado, is defending against sources of electromagnetic interference on U.S. military and commercial satellites.

The squadron is on the cutting edge of the Air Force’s defensive space control mission, defending critical satellite communication links with multiple weapons systems and a nearly global reach. Such efforts require integration of skill sets that carry over from earlier approaches to processing communications signals.

“For the most part radio is radio,” said Tech Sgt. Robert Hicks, 16th SPCS flight chief and maintainer. “This is similar no matter what (signal) is coming out or where (the signal) is going.”

Hicks came to the squadron from a background in ground radio under a special volunteer only project. The program, and his mission assignment, were adjusted and integrated into the 16th SPCS from operations.

The squadron defends access to the space domain by identifying, characterizing, and geolocating specific signals broadcast from various sources. The 16th SPCS externally monitors broadcasted signals, but does not listen in to what is transmitted.

Senior Airman Tyler Odenweller, 380th SPCS operator, brings transferrable skills as well. He worked in ground-side radio during his six years in the U.S. Marine Corps. The 380th SPCS is the reserve unit of the 16th SPCS.

His background in electronics matched up well with the assignment as a space operator. With his squadron being a reserve unit, Odenweller was able to choose his job. He decided to follow in the footsteps of his father, who was also a space systems operator in the Air Force.

“I was picking my dad’s brain about this, so I had a good idea of what the job was about,” said Odenweller. “Signals are signals and they are going to go up one way and down one way. It’s all the same if you know about it.”

The mission of the 16th and 380th SPCS is to defend against electromagnetic interference of U.S. military and commercial satellites, Hicks distilled that definition further.

“We provide the guy on the ground with a communication overwatch to get what he needs when he needs it,” Hicks said. “Having been in the situation before, I know what it is like.”

He finds his assignment to be a special one. Hicks appreciates performing multiple missions and making them work regardless of challenges that get into the mix.

“It’s a pretty unique experience,” he said.

“There’s always something a little different or out of the norm,” Odenweller added.

Both men agreed the career field is evolving. As an example, Hicks said where a communication palette in a Humvee was the previous method, now there are digital tablets worn on the chest that handle similar functions.

“Space is changing,” said Odenweller. “More countries and companies are getting into space.”

As the role of space as a warfighting theater continues to grow and change, so will the mission and duties of the space operators. Hicks and Odenweller said the demands of the career field are changing fast, just like those in the area of cyberspace and that the role of space in the Air Force will expand to meet those changes.