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Santa Barbara News-Press April 23, 2003

Without space, we're back to World War II

By Nora K. Wallace

Hoping to prevent a "space Pearl Harbor," the nation's first squadron designed to protect military satellites is now working at Vandenberg Air Force Base.

The 614th Space Intelligence Squadron is intended to defend communications, weather, navigation and missile-warning satellites from enemy attacks, both against ground stations and in space.

Satellites have become critical to the way the military operates and gathers information. Hundreds of satellites circle the globe, including many launched from Vandenberg. The satellites give military commanders data on things like enemy troop movements and weather systems on the battlefield.

In a short, formal ceremony Tuesday, military intelligence expert Lt. Col. Earl White assumed command of the new squadron. He accepted the 614th's guidon, or military flag, which carries the squadron's motto, "Clavis ad Caelestem Intelligentiam," or "The Key to Celestial Intelligence."

"Everybody in the world has been watching this Iraq war, and the Gulf War before that," said Lt. Col. White in an interview after the ceremony. "And they know what space does for the U.S. military. That is a key enabler. Without space, we're back to World War II. Anyone who wants to take on the United States knows they've got to handle us in space."

Agencies such as the Defense Space and Missile Analysis Center, the National Aerospace Intelligence Center, the National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency will all provide information to the squadron to help it determine potential threats and ways to respond to those concerns.

The unit will include intelligence experts and computer analysts, with the goal of training and creating a new breed for the Air Force: the space intelligence professional, said Lt. Col. White. The 20-person squadron, in the works for more than a year, will increase to about 88 staff during the next nine months or so. For now, it will be housed in an existing headquarters building.

The squadron will deal with only Air Force Space Command satellites, such as Milstar, the Global Positioning System and Defense Support Program, Lt. Col. White explained. It will not be responsible for national security satellites, such as classified spacecraft launched for spy agencies. Eventually, the 614th will work with space-based infrared satellites and space-based radar, he said.

Maj. Gen. Michael A. Hamel, commander of the 14th Air Force, which oversees Vandenberg's day-to-day space operations, said that space information and systems have become so critical that "nobody wants to go to war any longer without having space at their side."

"Ever since the end of the Cold War, we have struggled with trying to address and understand the various threats we as a nation will face, our critical dependence upon space, and trying to understand what kind of threats may be posed to our ability to operate in that medium," Maj. Gen. Hamel said.

But because of the successes of space-based information in the past decade, including the war in Iraq, those systems are more of a target.

"Our very dependence on space has not been lost upon our adversaries," Maj. Gen. Hamel said. "One of the lessons of this war we will be most surprised by is that there were not more efforts made by the adversary in trying to deny some of our capabilities. The fact of the matter is, we can never take for granted that we'll ever have a free ride again in terms of the use of space in future conflicts."

The 614th will help the military understand the ways enemies might try to attack or disrupt U.S. space systems. For instance, he said, satellites such as the Global Positioning System are vulnerable to interference from commercially available "jammers," which can disrupt the relay of information.

"All smart bombs, and smart weapons, were controlled by GPS (Global Positioning System)," said Maj. Kurt Gaudette, director of operations for the new squadron. "If those don't work, we don't have any smart bombs anymore. So it's critical that those assets stay up there and safe."

A report in 1999 studied the role of space in national security, and found that "this nation could potentially be susceptible to a space Pearl Harbor," the general said. "That is, our dependence on space, for our very economic well-being, the well-being of our society, is inextricably tied to space. In fact, there are means and ways by which adversaries could actually harm us grievously."

Those who analyze U.S. space policy agreed on the importance of the squadron.

"The latest war with Iraq was the space war that the 1991 Gulf War previewed," said John Pike, director of globalsecurity.org. "Space systems are the key to U.S. military power, and protecting them should be enhanced by an intelligence unit focused on space asset protection."

Eventually, Vandenberg will also likely become the home to a new Space Communication Squadron, said Lt. Col. White, who worked previously for the National Reconnaissance Office and the National Imagery and Mapping Agency.


Copyright 2003, Santa Barbara News-Press