Beyond the Wing: 148th Space Operations Squadron

  • Published
  • By Michael Peterson
  • 30th Space Wing Public Affairs
[Editor's Note: This is the first of an ongoing series highlighting the missions of tenant, and associate, units at Vandenberg]

In October of 2000, Vandenberg Air Force Base became host to the newly designated 148th Space Operations Squadron, the first California Air National Guard unit with a satellite command and control mission. Fifteen years later, perched on a hilltop within the Vandenberg Tracking Station complex, the 148th SOPS team of space operators continue to work around-the-clock, closely monitoring satellite data and ensuring access to secure communications for United States warfighters around the world.

Before arriving at Vandenberg, the 148th SOPS was previously the 148th Combat Communications Squadron and was located at Compton Air National Guard Base. Although its designation had changed, the 148th SOPS continued to focus on its primary mission of supporting the United States military with vital communications capabilities. The main difference since arriving at Vandenberg is that these capabilities are now operating in space. For Chief Master Sgt. Joseph Buchanan, 148th SOPS operations superintendent and member of the first cadre stationed at Vandenberg, that transition to space was a startling process.

"Our guys didn't really have any space experience, so it was a steep learning curve at the start." said Buchanan. "Thankfully, the 4th Space Operations Squadron provided that initial support and guidance to help us transition to space."

It didn't take long for the 148th SOPS to transition to their new role. Within nine months they were already running operations 24/7 and within 20 months had achieved a full mission capable status. As for the partnership with their active duty counterpart, the 4th SOPSĀ at Schriever AFB in Colorado, it continues to this day as both squadrons work together managing a series of communications satellites. It's not uncommon now to see video teleconferences at the start of shifts to maintain continuity for operator crews at both locations, or to see the transfer of command and control of the satellite constellation between the two squadrons.

"People tend to think that we're strictly a backup station, but that's really not the case," said Airman 1st Class Presley Power, 148th SOPS satellite systems operator. "It's more of a shared responsibility with the 4th SOPS, where we switch command and control back and forth as needed for the mission."

At the heart of the mission is the Military Strategic and Tactical Relay, or Milstar, a group of five cross-linked communications satellites providing secure and jam-resistant worldwide communications for the U.S. military. Each satellite functions as a switchboard for transmissions between various ground terminals, but Milstar's cross-linking capability also allows satellites to link directly to each other, reducing the amount of ground-controlled switching and thereby improving the overall security of the transmissions.

As the Milstar constellation pushes 20 years in operation, its system is currently being augmented with new Advanced Extremely High Frequency, or AEHF, satellites. These upgraded AEHF satellites can provide 10 times the throughput of the original 90s-era Milstar satellites and a substantial increase in coverage. With the addition of three AEHF satellites launched between August 2010 and September 2013, the entire constellation currently now sits at eight satellites, with two more added in the near future.

The addition of the AEHF satellites led to the need for a more robust control system for the 148th SOPS and in May of 2010 their operations floor added the new Advanced Satellite Mission Control Subsystem, or ASMCS, to help manage the larger network of satellites. The ASMCS provides operators an improved and streamlined user-interface along with new capabilities like the ability to command two satellites at the same time. An important addition as the 148th SOPS operators have seen their responsibilities grow.

"It's been a big improvement from the early systems using black and white monitors and trackballs," said Senior Airman Paul Davis, a 148th SOPS terminal and satellite systems operator who has been working with the Milstar system since 2010. "The ASMCS has helped us keep up with the increase in traffic and responsibilities we've seen as new satellites are added."

Among the recent achievements for the 148th SOPS is being the first unit to have command and control of all eight satellites, and having command of the entire constellation 32 times in 2014. Within the next few years the final AEHF satellites will be launched to complete the Milstar constellation upgrade, providing a secure satellite communications network that will be able to support the U.S. military well into the next decade. As long as there is the need for secure communications, the 148th SOPS will have their crew of operators ready and waiting, staying true to their squadron motto of "we hold the keys."