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26th SAS trains Airmen to counter satellite-jamming threats

SCHRIEVER AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- When a unmanned aerial vehicle feed goes blank or a Global Positioning System receiver fades out, it may be only a momentary loss of signal ... or it might be deliberate jamming. How can Airmen know whether they're being jammed -- and more importantly, how can they overcome that jamming to accomplish their mission?

The 26th Space Aggressor Squadron here and its active-duty counterpart, the 527th SAS, show Airmen how vital satellite communications and precision navigation and timing are in the field ... and they do it by taking those capabilities away.

It's one thing for an Airman controlling an unmanned aerial vehicle to receive a "white card" stating that his UAV feed is offline, said Lt. Col. Michael Assid, 26th SAS. It's a different story when the UAV feed simply disappears.

"Our training audiences observe the effects of jamming, which are largely theoretical to them coming in," Colonel Assid said.

The Space Aggressors support every Red Flag and numerous other exercises. They integrate their efforts with those of the 64th and 65th Aggressor Squadrons--the F-16 and F-15 Aggressors, respectively--to present a unified threat to their training audience. Although live GPS and SATCOM jamming is fairly new to Red Flag, the combat aviation community is learning quickly how to counter or mitigate these threats.

"When we first went to Red Flag, the Blue Forces didn't really know what to think of us," Colonel Assid said. "Then we started to show how a space-savvy adversary could severely hinder the air and ground campaign. Overnight, we became the number-one time-sensitive target and were prosecuted as such during each exercise scenario." 

The unit's focus is on training, not education, Colonel Assid said. The difference is an emphasis on application rather than theory.

"Education is theory: read a book, write a paper, what have you," the colonel explained. "Training is practical application. It answers the critical 'Why do I care?' question for the war fighter. We provide real jamming signals--we want the training audience to feel the effects of the systems and capabilities we emulate.

"These days, we do a lot of GPS and SATCOM jamming, though we perform some other functions ... and the mission is always evolving," he continued.

Staff Sgt. David Dunnock, one of the technical leads for the 26th SAS, agrees.

"As technologies get cheaper and cheaper, the ability to acquire systems capable of jamming becomes significantly easier. So it is essential that we think like bad guys and evolve our mission to encompass these new technologies," Sergeant Dunnock said.

Most incidents of interference are inadvertent -- a result of malfunctioning or improperly configured satellite communication equipment; however, the threat of deliberate jamming is real, and incidents are on the rise.

"The big fear would be that we get a surprise, large scale attack -- a space 'Pearl Harbor -- so we must ensure that we are ready for this eventuality," Sergeant Dunnock said.

Purpose-built satellite jammers are not required.

"Every SATCOM transmitter is potentially a jammer," Colonel Assid noted. "Any reasonably intelligent adversary could acquire information they need to jam a SATCOM signal. It takes a little technical know-how, certainly; but after that, it's just a matter of intent. This threat is here to stay, and people are becoming more receptive to that."

The 26th Space Aggressor Squadron is the oldest squadron in the Air Force Reserve and one of the oldest in the Air Force. Founded in 1915 by Capt. Raynall Bolling as the Army Signal Corps' 1st Aero Company, part of the New York National Guard, the squadron flew its first combat missions in punitive actions against Francisco Pancho Villa. When the United States entered World War I, the 1st Aero Company was federalized as the 1st Aero Reserve Squadron. In May 1917, it was redesignated the 26th Aero Squadron and sent to France to train American combat aviators.

After the war, the 26th went on to become a pursuit squadron, an attack squadron and a bomber squadron. In 1930, it moved to Hickam Field, Hawaii. The 26th lost 245 of 350 members when Japanese bombs struck their barracks building on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941.

The 26th distinguished itself during World War II, fighting back across the Pacific Theater. It is credited with the first sinking of a Japanese submarine by air attack and contributing to the destruction of the Japanese aircraft carriers Hiryu and Akagi during the Battle of Midway.

The unit inactivated in 1990. In the years that followed, the Air Force recognized a need for aggressor units--squadrons that could train U.S. and allied forces to recognize and counter adversary threats. The 527th SAS stood up as the first space aggressor unit in 2001, augmented by a flight of Reserve space aggressors. That flight grew and activated as 26th SAS, a Reserve associate unit to the 527th SAS, in 2003.

"The first thing we did was bring back the squadron's original heraldry, a gold and blue shield and clenched fist." Colonel Assid said. "The 26th adopted that emblem in 1924 and kept it until it became an air aggressor squadron, when it replaced the shield with a red star. That was consistent with the other aggressor squadrons.

"We combined them to pay tribute to our unit's 90-plus-year history. Now we have the shield superimposed over the red star. Our World War II alumni really got a kick out of that," he said.

The key to the success of the 26th's mission, Colonel Assid said, is its working relationship with 527th SAS--considered by some in Air Force Reserve Command to be the model working relationship among active-duty and Reserve associate units.

"We work together on every aspect of this mission," Colonel Assid said. When you see an aggressor team conducting operations, you can't tell who's active-duty and who's Reserve. Most times, neither can we."

As a space aggressor, Colonel Assid said his ultimate goal is to get "killed" during scenarios, because his unit's "death" in an exercise means Airmen have successfully countered the jamming threat.

"I have the best job in the Air Force: I get to be a bad guy, and by doing so, I make the good guys better. If I get a 'splat' call and have to shut down my jammers, I consider that a success," he said.

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