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Ascension Island

Located on Ascension Island in the South Atlantic Ocean, Ascension AAF (Auxiliary Air Field) is the name of the missile and spacecraft tracking complex designated as Station 12 in the United States Air Force Eastern Test Range. In its entirety it consists of the airfield, the main base of living quarters, administration and logistics, and tracking/communications sites spread out across the vocanic island. This is not to be confused with the seperate NASA complex, known as the NASA Tracking Station, which was also located on the same island.

Ascension Auxiliary Airfield is a remote spacecraft tracking station and airfield of 3,449 acres on a British island in the south Atlantic Ocean between Africa and South America. The installation is the southern terminus of the 45th Space Wings eastern range, providing tracking, telemetry, and command instrumentation for DoD, commercial, and NASA spacecraft.

There are three communities on Ascension other than the U.S. Base. These are the British settlements of Georgetown, on the western shore; Two Boats Village, near the geographic center of the island; and the Royal Air Force (RAF) Camp at Travelers Hill, just south of Two Boats. Most of the island residents from these communities are from the United Kingdom and St. Helena. Cable and Wireless, Merlin Communications (formerly British Broadcasting Corporation), Ascension Island Government, SerCo, Composite Signals Organization (CSO) and the British Military forces are among the island’s organizations. The island population is approximately 1,000. There are approximately 300 personnel on the U.S. installation. The remaining 700 personnel are employed or supported by the host nation.

Ascension AAF is located on land occupied under the terms of an agreement between the 45th Space Wing and the Government of the United Kingdom (UK), and is listed as 45th Space Wing Leased Property. The U.S. Army Air Corp constructed the airfield in 1942. By 1943, approximately 4,000 American servicemen were on the island and remained until 1947. Cable and Wireless (a British company) obtained possession of the airfield at that time. The island population fell to 170 people.

The Americans returned in 1957 to reopen the airfield and establish the Main Base. The National Aeronautical Space Administration (NASA) built an installation in 1966. Two Boats Village was completed the same year. The NASA station closed in 1990 and the Ariane Rocket Station opened the same year.

On October 1, 1990, Air Force Space Command assumed responsibility for U.S. Air Force space launch operations and on November 12, 1991, the Eastern Test Range was inactivated and the Eastern Range was activated as a result of restructuring throughout the Air Force. The 45th Space Wing, a component of the 14th Air Force at Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA, currently oversees the Eastern Range. Ascension AAF has one active 10,000-ft long and 150-ft wide runway. The operation and maintenance of the runway is shared with the Royal Air Force.

The 23rd Space Operations Squadron is one of eight Air Force Satellite Control Network Remote Tracking Stations providing United States Strategic Command with critical satellite command and control capability to more than 150 Department of Defense, national and civilian satellites performing intelligence, weather, navigation, early-warning and communications operations. On Aug. 1, 2011, 23 SOPS began supporting two GPS ground antennas and monitor stations. One is located at Cape Canaveral and the other is located at Ascension Auxiliary Air Field on Ascension Island in the South Atlantic.

Ascension Island, about 280 miles to the northwest of Saint Helena, and almost as far to the south-south-west of the Island of Saint Matthew, 900 miles from Africa and nearly 3500 miles from England. It will thus be seen that it has no neighbors, and those who dwell upon it are troubled with few visitors. It is not found maiked down in the itinerary of any tourist. and any do occasionally visit its shores, it is more by chance than from purpose.

First discovered in 1501 by Juan Da Nova, Ascension was called Conception before being renamed in 1503 by Alphonse D’Alberquerque. The island takes its name from the circumstance of its having been dicovered by the Spanish navigator on Ascension Day. Though it was discovered as early as 1501, it remained uninhabited till 1815, when, in connection with Napoleon Bonaparte's detention in Saint Helena, the English took possession of it, and have since used it as a naval victualing and coaling station and hospital.

Ascension was useful in former times as a depot for the squadron employed in suppressing the slave trade between West Africa and Brazil. Since then, the Royal Naval Hospital established on the top of Green Mountain, and was found greatly beneficial, though its maintenance in such a situation is too costly, and the scarcity of water was a serious defect. The hospital was thoroughly supplied with all the needful furnishings and appliances to be found in the best appointed institutions of its kind, and there was nothing lacking either in the ability and skill of its practicing professors or in their needful equipment.

In 1888 the First Lord of the Admiralty, announced to the Committee on Naval estimates that the Government had decided to give up Ascension Island; and that in consequence of that decision it was resolved to spend a considerable sum of money in fortifying the Island of St. Helena. No one in his senses would think of fortifying and occupying both Ascension and St. Helena. Of the two islands, St. Helena was by far the more important and convenient, being about equidistant between Sierra Leone and the Cape, whereas Ascension Island is 800 miles further north. St. Helena is also the more salubrious and fertile; it also had a civil population which would assist in defending the island.

The subject was carefully considered by a Royal Commission, presided over by Lord Carnarvon, in 1881-2, of which Lord Knutsford and Sir Alexander Milne were members, and that Commission came to a conclusion adverse to the fortification of both islands, and in favor of fortifying St. Helena. In the year 1888, the Imperial Defence Act was passed, and it became necessary for the Government to decide whether they would fortify St. Helena or maintain the establishment at Ascension. A Departmental Committee, called the Colonial Defences Committee, was formed, for the purpose of advising as to expenditure on Colonial Defences, and that Committee reported in favor of the adoption of the recommendation of the Royal Commission, or, in other words, that St. Helena should be fortified, and that the naval depOt at Ascension should be given up.

But after more careful and thorough consideration the balance of argument was in favor of the retention of Ascension as a Naval and Coaling Station. It is also a fact that the Committee made preferred St. Helena, but they considered this question from rather a partial point of view. They regarded the valne of St. Helena and Ascension from the point of view of the South African trade only, rather than of the increasing trade now coming round the Horn and from the south-east and eastern side of America.

The real point in relation to the question is in connection with Ascension was not a strategical point at all. Ascension is nearer to West African ports, where British fleets in peace time were stationed. These ports were unhealthy, therefore British ships had to return at intervals to a more temperate climate.

Towards the end of the 19th century Ascension had gone into decline. In 1899 The Easter Telegraph Company (now called Cable and Wireless) found a new use for this speck of land. They laid telegraphy cable on the seabed, and soon Ascension became the centre of communications in the South Atlantic.

 The UK retains sovereign rights on Ascension, although the US military have run Wideawake Airfield since 1942.   Today Ascension plays a vital role in sustaining British Forces, with Wideawake the key stopover point for the South Atlantic air bridge. Wideawake airfield on Ascension Island played a pivotal role in the 8,000-mile supply chain and remains so today. During CORPORATE the availability of the civilian air fleet, including the large capacity Belfast, by then commercially operated by HeavyLift, ensured that shortfalls in military capacity were bridged

The permanent military presence on the PJOBs contributes to the physical defence and maintenance of sovereignty of the UK overseas territories as well as contributing to the delivery of wider UK Government policy. British Forces South Atlantic Islands (BFSAI) are based at Mount Pleasant Airfield, and various remote stations, as a visible demonstration of the United Kingdom’s sovereignty over the Falkland Islands. In addition they maintain a periodic presence in South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands. They also control and direct the limited number of service personnel permanently stationed on Ascension Island to operate Wideawake Airfield.

The island is but seven and a half miles long, from west to east, and six and a half miles broad, from north to south, with a surface of thirty-eight square miles. It is very rugged and barren, consisting of extinct volcanic craters, lava streams and beds, more or less decomposed, and ravines filled with scoria and pumice-stone. Some parts of the island are the very picture of desolation, while other parts present a cheerful aspect and are capable of the highest degree of cultivation. There is little inducement, however, for the cultivation of anything beyond the necessities of the inhabitants, as the only market, and a very uncertain one at that, are the ships which from time to time may call.

Like the Island of Saint Helena, Ascension Island is of volcanic origin, and generally mountainous—one peak, the Green Mountain, rising to a height of 2870 feet. This mountain is finely wooded, though from the extreme dryness of the climate, which, however, is remarkably healthy, the surface of the island is nearly destitute of verdure. Toward the summit of the moun tain large plots of fertile soil exist, much of which has been brought under cultivation. The views from the mountain are very extensive, and from some points quite picturesque and imposing.

The island is volcanic in nature and is made up of the remnants of 49 volcanoes, roughly 34 square miles, and is 1.5 million years old. The terrain consists of hills, rugged mountains, cinder cones, and lava flows of volcanic rock. The majority of the land use on Ascension is undeveloped open space, followed by base support (industrial), operations, telecommunications, outdoor recreation and administrative land uses. There are no categories of unique lands or activities at the Station that require special land use designations; however, there exist special areas of environmental concern (i.e., bird nesting areas, protected vegetation, and turtle hatching areas) which are remote from the Main Base.

The tallest peak on the Island, Green Mountain is often shrouded in mist. It was recognised as having the greatest potential for vegetation and the Marines had a farm up there. In Victoria times and well into the 20th century this provided all the fresh produce for the Island including milk and vegetables. Today, with the advent of the Airbridge from the UK, the farm is considerably smaller than it was. Just below the summit of the Mountain, the Dew Pond is the highest ‘feature’ on the Island and can be found surrounded by a bamboo forest and a myriad of plant and wildlife. It was dug out in 1875 to act as an emergency water supply, although in practice it would never have been sufficient to provide water for the Island. The path to the top is often muddy and a rope is provided to help both the ascent and the descent.

Open, undeveloped, lands comprised of volcanic rock, lava flows, and cinders surround Ascension AAF. These areas flourish with grasses during May/June if rain is plentiful but are sparsely covered with dormant grasses and small shrubs during the remainder of the year.

Ascension Island is one of the most significant breeding places for seabirds in the south Atlantic. It holds the only breeding site in the world for the critically threatened Ascension Frigate bird and important colonies of ten other species. Ascension was discovered in 1501. Shortly after its discovery, black rats were accidentally introduced to the island from European sailing ships. Feral cats were introduced to the island to control rats in the 19th century. They had a major influence on the size and composition of seabird communities on the island and hence throughout the tropical Atlantic Ocean.

The efforts of the Ascension Island Government and the Station have, from the recent surveys, eradicated feral cats from the island. Rats are a restrictive factor for the re-colonization of the main island by seabirds. Rats and cats, both of which were alien to Ascension Island, have now devastated its natural wildlife. The two native land bird species, a rail and night heron, are both extinct, and the huge seabird colonies that were once found on the mainland are now largely restricted to offshore stacks that have remained free of cats and rats. The largest of these, Boatswainbird Island, is the only place in the world where the endemic Ascension Frigatebird breeds.

Ten additional species of seabird breed on Boatswainbird and Ascension Island. The most numerous of these is the sooty tern, or ‘wideawake’, the only seabird to still nest in large numbers on the mainland. The sooty tern colonies or ‘wideawake fairs’ support colonies totaling about 150,000 pairs, but even these colonies are much reduced compared to historical levels.

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Page last modified: 12-07-2017 19:10:33 ZULU