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Buckley provides situation awareness to warfighters

BUCKLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- “We’re not sure what they do, but we’re glad they do it here.” 

Those are the words the mayor of the City of Aurora once said about Buckley AFB. With an economic impact in the eastern metro area greater than $1.2 billion, one would hope that the base’s greatest supporters would have some idea of what the base does. The reality is that most people in the surrounding community do not.

As with most military units, there are parts of Buckley AFB’s mission that cannot be discussed openly with just anyone, but there are also parts of the mission that the men and women of Buckley AFB should discuss, and more importantly, be able to explain to non-space operators.

Many of the people who do not work directly with the operational mission at Buckley AFB would probably share Mayor Ed Tauer’s sentiments about just what the men and women of the 460th Space Wing do here every day.

Space wing leaders often describe what the wing does as “global surveillance, tracking and targeting.” Most Americans have seen enough Hollywood portrayals of radar screens and bombs dropping to figure out what those words mean in the world of aircraft. But what do they mean in the world of satellites – in the world of space?

In short, it means that the 460th SW is in the business of keeping tabs on the launching of missiles of various sizes around the globe and reporting this information to people in decision-making positions in the United States and deployed locations around the globe.

“The 460th Space Wing has four basic responsibilities,” said Col. David Ziegler, 460th SW commander. “The first is missile detection and reporting, the second is providing targeting data to support missile defense, the third is battlefield preparation and the fourth is nuclear detonation detection.”

The first responsibility stems from the strategic security, Cold War days, he said. But the world is a different place now, so with those changes have come changes in the mission of the 460th SW.

New, smaller missiles are now part of the detection and reporting scenario, and informing battlefield commanders about these smaller missiles helps prepare the battlefield and shape the fight, Colonel Ziegler said.

Also related to the detection aspect of the 460th mission is missile defense – using targeting capabilities to secure the continental United States from missile attack – and nuclear detonation detection, which plays a large part in the monitoring of various nuclear non-proliferation treaties.

The “kill chain” is generally broken down into six steps: find, fix, track, target, engage and assess.

“Historically, we have been in the find, fix and track business,” said Col. Dave Tobin, 460th Operations Group commander,” but with our emerging missile defense mission, targeting is an integral part of our mission too.”

“In the context of our Space Based Infrared System mission, these steps are relatively simple to understand,” he said. “A sensor on a satellite looks for heat, the sensor ‘sees’ infrared waves, and the data – an energy pattern – is matched with known IR signatures or profiles.”

Based on the data, computers are able to compute the location of the object, where it’s going and where it’s likely to land.

That information is what becomes the “situation awareness” the men and women of the 460th SW are responsible for providing to the country’s leaders, both civilian and military.

As the mission continues to grow, so too the responsibilities grow. What many people do not realize is that even though all the systems and Airmen are not sitting in Iraq or Afghanistan, the 460th Space Wing presence there is very real. For the 460th SW, home station operations have a direct impact on American and coalition troops fighting in theater.

This direct impact is the wing’s third responsibility.

“We provide situational awareness – the battlefield preparation – to combatant commanders around the world,” Colonel Ziegler said. “It’s our job to help them know what the threat is, where it is and how best to counter it.”