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Space aggressors sail into military's newest frontier

SCHREIVER AFB, Colo. -- That glint you see in the corner of his eye as he looks toward the sky could be a star. Maybe it’s the noon sun high in the Colorado sky. Perhaps a reflection from the rolling hills that surround his Rocky Mountain workplace.

More likely, however, it’s a satellite, one of a thousand America has launched into space since Russia’s Sputnik first orbited the Earth 47 years ago. And that satellite caught in Lt. Col. Guy “Spike” Morley’s eye is there for a reason.

He wants to attack it. And he can.

With the red star of the Aggressor slapped proudly on his shoulder, Colonel Morley commands the now year-old 26th Space Aggressors Squadron, a group of 30 Reservists holed up on one of the most heavily guarded Air Force bases in the Department of Defense some 10 miles southeast of “Spacetown, USA,” Colorado Springs, Colo.

This is a band of handpicked space warriors that gets paid to think and do like the world’s bad guys. While some might see them as a rapscallion group of rogues that Captain Hook might assemble to loot and plunder, nothing could be farther from the truth.

And so, right now, that glint in Colonel Morley’s eye is that of a captain, setting sail on an ocean called “space,” with a newly built ship fitted with new cannons and an uncharted mission.

“Technology has created a flashpoint for bad guys to attack our own systems,” said the commander with the Jolly Roger flying proudly on his office wall. “They can cripple our ability to fight effectively. As space aggressors, so can we.”

Attacks in all shapes and sizes
On a Web site discovered in a random search using the words “jamming” and “satellites” reads this posting:

“I was thinking about jamming satellites. It sounds fun. I want to do more than jam, which is pretty easy. ... possibly broadcast.”

The poster went on to say he would probably get caught, but he wasn’t too worried.

“I don’t think they can do much to a kid my age. Gotta do it before my birthday, which gives me 12 days. Just thinking out loud. Anyone got a good guide or something?”

Sound innocent? Colonel Morley said the “good guides” are out there.

“You can find this stuff all over the Internet,” he said. “While no country is economically positioned to go against us, our enemies can look for cheaper and easier ways to defeat our technologies.”

And they have. During Operation Iraqi Freedom, in one well-publicized incident, the United States destroyed six Global Positioning System satellite-jamming devices that were intended to stop the delivery of precision-guided weapons.

“I’m pleased to say they had no effect on us,” said Maj. Gen. Victor Renuart, commenting on the incident at the time.

The efforts extend far beyond Iraq. In another well-publicized incident, the Iranian government used a small satellite dish based in Cuba to block the transmission of the Voice of America signal into Iran.

Iran itself couldn’t block the programming because the signal must be jammed over the Atlantic Ocean, where the satellites are positioned. So, instead, according to Associated Press reports, the government used a small Russian communications station in Cuba to jam the signal.

Incidents like these, and others that no one can mention, got senior DOD leaders talking. ... and wondering.

“At first, no one wanted to discuss the possibilities,” said Maj. Dwight Anderson, who’s been part of the Space Aggressors program since its birth nearly seven years ago. “They wanted to discuss the offensive capabilities but not the defensive stuff. Everybody saw space as a sanctuary. But that’s changed.”

However, resistance still exists to discovering the benefits of deterring space-based attacks on U.S. assets.

“There are a lot of people who want to stick their heads in the sand and not acknowledge the threat,” Colonel Morley said. “We have a great investment in offensive capabilities. We likewise have to invest in defensive capabilities.”

‘Space Pearl Harbor’
With each conflict since the Gulf War, the United States and its allies have come to rely more upon space-based capabilities like GPS, Colonel Morley said. It’s this increased reliance on space that has the Aggressors thinking of ways to fight potential threats.

“We need the ability to anticipate what the enemy might do,” said Maj. Brett J.B. Rota, a former helicopter pilot who is now the politico-military officer of the Aggressors. “We need to better develop tactics, techniques and procedures that meet the future needs of the DOD.”

“An attack on elements of U.S. space systems during a crisis or conflict should not be considered an improbable act,” according to a DOD report. “If the U.S. is to avoid a ‘space Pearl Harbor,’ it needs to take seriously the possibility of an attack on U.S. space systems. The nation’s leaders must assure that the vulnerability of the United States is reduced and that the consequences of a surprise attack on U.S. space assets are limited in their effects.”

Enter the Aggressors, including the Reserve squadron and its active-duty counterpart, the 527th SAS. Enter Schriever Air Force Base, Colo., more silent and mysterious as far as its space-based operations and mission are concerned than “Catcher in the Rye” author J.D. Salinger is about his own privacy.

Master Sgt. J.J. Ellis is one of the people Colonel Morley hired to be on his team. By trade, Sergeant Ellis is one of two survival, evasion, resistance and escape instructors in the Air Force Reserve. However, his new day job has him doing something more — something to prevent that “space Pearl Harbor.”

“I thought I’d continue to be a ‘bug-eater’ and teach the others about bug-eating,” said Sergeant Ellis, who was the first bug-eater involved in Operations Northern and Southern Watch. “Now, I’m both a bug-eater and an operator.”

Maj. Rich Burchfield, operations officer for the squadron, is one of a handful of people trained to understand the technology the squadron employs when it’s out doing its job, as it did during the most recent Joint Expeditionary Force Experiment.

“There are very few things that get me drooling about being in uniform,” Major Burchfield said with a wide smile. “This is one of them.”

His enthusiasm is a by-product of what he called “an incredible group of people I work with. When they have to go kick butt, get out of their way.”

Not standing still
Maj. Mike Assid is wearing a tiger-striped utility uniform and is getting ready to go “schwack” some stuff, as he puts it. He is the Aggressors’ operations flight chief. In short, he gets to lead the folks who get to go and do the fun things.

When Major Assid’s team goes out and successfully “schwacks” something — disables GPS, floods a satellite channel with noise or irritates a commander’s communications capability enough during an exercise to shut it down (they’ve done it) — that’s when he knows his team has done it’s job.

“What we do has a direct impact on flyers,” the major said. “We present a type of tactical, operational and strategic problem. Then we show how we did it and what can be done to prevent it in the future.”

His team of schwackers demonstrates its array of capabilities via a multimillion dollar toy box. It’s a highly classified collection of scopes, dishes and vehicles that Sergeant Ellis and Major Assid use each day.

Like any ship’s crew, the Aggressors keep their high-tech “toys” stored in an innocuous cargo hold called “The Barn.” It’s little more than a large prefabricated shed surrounded by junked cars, motor homes, a portable toilet and a security force that rivals one assembled for a presidential visit.

One element that makes their job all the more challenging is the roaming nature of their enemy.

“The threat doesn’t stand still,” Major Assid said. “It’s a moving target.”

Much like the teen-ager convicted of creating the “Blaster” worm that infected millions of computers across the globe recently, attacks on satellite systems can occur from almost anywhere at almost anytime.

“At first, we didn’t know what we were looking for,” Major Anderson said. “We just figured if it emits, it dies.”

Unlike aircraft that need runways, hangars and hundreds of people to keep them flying, jamming equipment requires much less infrastructure and resources. And it can be used to attack satellite systems while on the move.

“The former mentality of seeing it, targeting it and bombing it until it dies doesn’t work,” Colonel Morley said. “With attacks on space-based stuff, the threat is small and is going to pop up again and again.”

The key to the Aggressors’ success, the colonel said, is that they learn from each of their experiences. He points out that his is not a group of cowboys, riding in, busting up the bar and riding out. Rather, he prefers the 26th SAS to be known as a group of quiet, educated and well-trained professionals that uses the nation’s newest and most diverse threat as a learning tool.

It is an assemblage of minds and skills: a handful of Ph.D.s, a survival instructor, a former rescue helicopter pilot, a Harvard MBA and more satellite knowledge than Dave Matthews could ever cram into his song “Satellite.” In all, the squadron’s collection of traditional Reservists and full-time employees occupy 22 Air Force specialties.

“We want to kill the cowboy mentality that started with the flying aggressor squadron,” said Colonel Morley, referring to the former unit based at Nellis AFB, Nev. “We want to show the problem and then help the warfighter develop solutions for the problem.”

End game
Whether it’s bringing a downed pilot home, putting a smart bomb on target or enabling the capability of another mission, Colonel Morley’s Aggressors know they are in the pioneering stages of developing something big.

“People don’t know what they don’t know,” Major Assid said. “We present the small problems and help them find answers. We want to show warfighters that the problems are real and exist but are not insurmountable.”

Bug-eater Sergeant Ellis agreed.

“We do not want to provide our customers with learned helplessness,” the senior NCO said. “We know where to draw the line on realism, but we’re also discovering so much to pass on. We want the good guys to get familiar with their space-based vulnerabilities.”

With a new glint in his eye, the shine of pride in what his unit can accomplish, Colonel Morley is ready to take on the future, and his crew is ready to set sail.
“This is about our nation’s ability to succeed in war,” he said. “We’re here to help ensure we can fight the war.”

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