21 SOPS mission, heritage, impact

Lt. Col. Phillip Verroco is the 21st Space Operations Squadron commander at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. 21 SOPS is a Schriever geographically separated unit. (U.S. Air Force Photo)

Lt. Col. Phillip Verroco is the 21st Space Operations Squadron commander at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. 21 SOPS is a Schriever geographically separated unit. (U.S. Air Force Photo)

SCHRIEVER AIR FORCE BASE, Colo.- --

Readers may not know a great deal about the 21st Space Operations Squadron.  My first question when learning of my selection for command was “what do they do?”  The name was familiar, but the squadron mission, heritage and impact was a mystery.

21 SOPS is a squadron in the 50th Network Operations Group, physically located at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.  If you have heard of 21 SOPS; you probably know it to be the location for the continuity of operations it provides to many 50th Space Wing space operations squadrons.  The squadron oversees Air Force Satellite Control Network sites at Diego Garcia (REEF), Guam (GUAM), Hawaii (HULA), and Vandenberg (COOK).  The squadron operates one of the two operational control nodes (DICE) that enable AFSCN traffic between various satellite operations centers and the worldwide network of remote sites used to communicate with more than 175 satellites.  The squadron also oversees GPS facilities at Diego Garcia and Kwajalein Atoll, as well as a monitoring station in Hawaii. In addition, 21 SOPS operates two wideband earth terminals used to support various users of the Wideband Global SATCOM constellation in the Pacific.  Finally, the squadron is a key element of AFSCN defensive cyber operations.

21 SOPS traces its heritage to the dawn of the American space age.  The squadron’s organizational forefathers and the remote tracking stations were established as part of the Corona project to provide the collection of overhead imagery for use during the Cold War.  A former darkroom at COOK once processed film canisters returned from space.  HULA—to the best of my knowledge—is the oldest surviving Air Force element of the space mission area.  21 SOPS was originally located in Sunnyvale, California, at Onizuka Air Station, named for Col. Ellison Onizuka, who lost his life aboard the Challenger spacecraft.  The squadron moved to Vandenberg when Base Realignment and Closure shuttered Onizuka in 2010.   

21 SOPS impacts both the space and cyber mission aspects of the 50 SW.  The squadron, through the remote sites, supports thousands of satellite contacts every week.  The remote sites are often mandatory, must-have assets, for satellite launches.  COOK also supports launches from Vandenberg as a range safety contributor.  21 SOPS stands ready to accept personnel from Schriever to ensure mission continuity of operations. The squadron scans the AFSCN routinely to find any emerging threats and pushes its findings back to the mission defense team for deeper analysis.  In short, 21 SOPS quietly enables mission requirements as “Gateway to the Stars” for the 50 SW and many other organizations.