VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. – California Airmen hold the keys to victory in space – literally – in a little-known mission, often unsung, which operates 24/7, 365 days a year. Perched on a high hilltop with commanding views of the surrounding mountains, valleys and rugged terrain of the Pacific coast, the 148th Space Operations Squadron at the Vandenberg Tracking Station complex perform work that ensures the security of the United States.
These airmen keep vigil over the military’s vital space systems and satellite data, ensuring access to secure communications throughout the Department of Defense.
“It’s absolutely critical,” said Lt. Col. Nathan Foss, commander of the 148th SOPS. “It is all hands-on deck and everyone is equally important. We are all combat-ready mission-operators.”
Enlisted and officer, alike, man the consoles on the operations floor, surrounded by clocks, screens, whiteboards, checklists, and giant binders with alarm codes. The airmen banter back and forth in a casual, relaxed manner, while simultaneously monitoring the satellites for alarms, ready to spring to action, keeping watch over spacecraft and each other.
“I love the crew structure,” Staff Sgt. Marcopolo Ulloa, 148th SOPS, space systems operator and instructor, chimes in. Known as “Marco” by his teammates, the recently promoted NCO is full of energy. “We succeed together. This mission is too important to fail.”
148th SOPS men and women work around the clock, providing access to secure communications for tactical warfighters, combatant commanders and the national command authority.
“I love it,” says Maj. Ruben Carrillo, 148th SOPS, chief of training. “I’ve been doing this space thing for 16 years. It’s always evolving. We provide a unique capability and a competitive advantage. People are surprised to see what space brings to the fight.”
Partnering with the 4th Space Operations Squadron at Schriever Air Force Base, Colorado, the 148th shares command and control for the U.S. military’s most essential communications satellites.
“What a satellite is, is a computer in space,” said Lt. Col. Foss. Imagine flying your old Windows 95’ PC in space. That is essentially what we are doing here.”
The satellite constellation includes five 1990’s era Milstar, Military Strategic and Tactical Relay spacecraft, along with the modern Advanced Extremely High Frequency, or AEHF satellites.
With the successful launch of AEHF-5 on Aug. 8, 2019 the satellite network now includes ten cross-linked satellites, operating from geo-synchronous orbit, some 35-thousand kilometers away. The 148th Space Operations Squadron provides secure and jam-resistant communications worldwide for the U.S. military, at times taking command and control of the entire constellation.
The 148th shares the Space Tracking Station complex at Vandenberg with active-duty members from the 21st Space Operations Squadron and 50th Space Wing. While their active-duty neighbors support ballistic missile tests and space launches from the Western Test Range, the 148th is focused exclusively on enabling satellite communications.
The 148th provides space situational awareness, command diagnostics, and satellite access to tactical users in the field as well as strategic users, from ballistic submarines, to Carrier Strike Groups, to combatant commanders, and even Air Force One. The 148th provides telemetry data and over the air re-key, hence the squadron motto – “We hold the keys” – and their keys are capable of penetrating a nuclear-scintillated environment, according to Capt. David Amiel, weapon and tactics flight commander, 148th SOPS.
The airmen of the 148th have quietly carried out these duties, day-in and day-out, ensuring great success for military operations, such as Operation Neptune Spear, the mission to take out Osama Bin Laden. It was the California Airmen at the 148th who sent the keys and communications signals for Seal Team Six.
“They used our signals here,” said Marco. “We made sure they had communications capability.”
Everyone at the 148th is certified to pull ops shifts, regardless of specialty code or rank. The unit has been deployed in place now, conducting 24/7 crew ops, for over a decade. And the 148th SOPS is the first and only California Air National Guard Unit with a satellite command and control mission.
“It’s a super-unique mission,” said Foss. “In our efforts to provide critical support to the warfighter, we also have the opportunity to control a $45 billion-dollar enterprise, between satellite and ground systems. That’s pretty darn cool.”
The airmen of the 148th Space Operations Squadron will continue holding the keys to victory, in America’s space wars, helping keep America safe.
“It’s a very important mission,” said Amiel, “to secure the United States.”