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Eglin Air Force Base squadron part of new Space Force

Official U.S. Space Force Facebook page header. (U.S. Space Force/Released)

A few days before Christmas, as President Donald Trump signed the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, the nearly 250 airmen and civilians with the Eglin Air Force Base-headquartered 20th Space Control Squadron became part of the U.S. Space Force, the new sixth branch of U.S. military forces.

The squadron, which operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, is part of the 21st Space Wing, headquartered at Colorado’s Peterson Air Force Base. The 21st Space Wing is one of five space-oriented Air Force wings that are now part of the Space Force.

Also now assigned to the Space Force is the 45th Space Wing at Florida’s Patrick Air Force Base, the 30th Space Wing at California’s Vandenburg Air Force Base, the 50th Space Wing at Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado, and the 460th Space Wing at Colorado’s Buckley Air Force Base.

The 20th Space Control Squadron uses a global network of radar and deep-space sensor installations “to find, fix, track and target man-made objects in Earth’s orbit, ranging from a softball-sized object 7,000 kilometers (nearly 4,500 miles) away to an object the size of a basketball 40,000 kilometers (nearly 25,000 miles) away,” according to an Air Force fact sheet.

As far as the 21st Space Wing is concerned, “the stand-up of the United States Space Force will produce no immediate changes to our mission,” the wing’s public affairs office noted in an emailed response to questions about the future of the wing and the squadron.

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However, the email went on to note that “the creation of the U.S. Space Force, the sixth branch of our military, will result in organizational structure changes expected at Peterson Air Force Base and the 20th Space Control Squadron,” although the primary mission of the wing and the squadron “will remain the same.”

At Eglin, the 20th Space Control Squadron operates a phased-array radar northwest of Freeport. Last year, the facility celebrated its 50th anniversary. Built originally to detect submarine-launched ballistic missiles, it has in the intervening years been used in support of NASA’s Apollo program, the space shuttle program and the construction of the International Space Station.

At last year’s anniversary, squadron commander Col. David Tipton reflected on how the need for the Eglin radar has grown since it was first established.

“The number of countries utilizing space has grown from two at the time of this radar stand-up to 76,” Tipton said. As a consequence, the number of cataloged items orbiting the Earth has jumped from 246 to more than 22,000, Tipton said.

It is not yet precisely clear how the 21st Space Wing, and as a result, the 20th Space Control Squadron, will fit into the new Space Force, but it is important to note that the squadron hosts the majority of the U.S. Department of Defense’s assets aimed at keeping U.S. military forces aware of what is in the skies and space above them.

In addition, the 20th Space Control Squadron includes an intelligence component that uses data gathered by its tracking equipment to develop operational and mission planning.

The squadron’s work fits neatly into the Space Force mission. As outlined in the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, the annual U.S. defense budget and policy bill, the Space Force is charged to ”protect the interests of the United States in space; … deter aggression in, from, and to space; and … conduct space operations.”.

For the immediate future, the 2020 NDAA requires that a “comprehensive plan” for Space Force for the next five years be developed by Feb. 1. Beyond that, the Department of Defense has 180 days from President Trump’s Dec. 20 signing of the 2020 NDAA to submit to Congress a personnel plan for the Space Force. At least for this year, the NDAA does not authorize the creation of any additional “billets” — military-speak for personnel positions — beyond current Air Force staffing for the Space Force.

Additionally, Congress did not appropriate nearly what the president had sought in Space Force funding. The president’s budget proposal requested $72.4 million, but the Congress-approved NDAA capped Space Force spending at $40 million.

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© 2020 The Walton Sun