Navy Transfers Space Surveillance Mission to Air Force

Story Number: NNS041019-09Release Date: 10/20/2004 5:33:00 AM
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By Gary R. Wagner, Naval Network and Space Operations Command Public Affairs

DAHLGREN, Va. (NNS) -- The Navy transferred operation of the former Naval Space Surveillance System, the nation's oldest sensor built to track satellites and debris in orbit around the Earth, to the Air Force during formal ceremonies here Oct. 1.

The Secretary of Defense had directed the Navy to transfer program management of the system to the Air Force beginning in October 2003. The Air Force requested that the Navy continue to operate the space surveillance sensor, also known as the "Fence," through fiscal year 2004.

The newly created 20th Space Control Squadron (20th SPCS) Det. 1 assumes operation of the Fence from the Naval Network and Space Operations Command (NNSOC). At the establishment ceremony, Rear Adm. John Cryer, the commander for NNSOC, reminded the audience that the nation's space surveillance mission has been a joint service effort from its earliest beginnings.

"Even as Navy developed the unique capability we have in the Fence, we have always worked closely with the Air Force," which is responsible for maintaining space control, Cryer emphasized. "We will continue that tradition of joint service cooperation in the years ahead."

Cryer expressed pride in the command's employees, who have been critical to the success of the Navy's space surveillance operation for the past several decades.

"And I'm pleased the Air Force has elected to continue operation of the Fence from Dahlgren, partly in recognition of the invaluable expertise our personnel bring to the mission," he continued.

The transfer of Fence operations to the Air Force brings an end to more than 40 years of Navy control of the sensor from Dahlgren, first by the Naval Space Surveillance System (NAVSPASUR), then assumed by Naval Space Command in 1993, and finally by NNSOC when that organization was established in 2002.

In addition to assuming operation of the Navy's space surveillance system, the 20th SPCS Det. 1 is also taking on the Alternate Space Control Center (ASCC) mission, which was first assigned to NAVSPASUR in 1987. In its ASCC role, NAVSPASUR - followed by Naval Space Command and finally NNSOC - served as the backup computational and command and control node for the Space Control Center at Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Base, Colo.

The new Air Force detachment is a component of the 20th Space Control Squadron headquartered at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. During the ceremony, Lt. Col. James Hogan, squadron commander, presented the detachment's new flag to Maj. Donald Daugherty, the unit's first officer in charge.

"For 43 years, Navy has stood watch over space with the Fence, and has one of the first seats at the table of space surveillance," Hogan said. "In addition, the Navy has operated the free world's only Alternate Space Control Center for 17 years.

"Today marks this country's continued commitment to these two very important missions," Lt. Col. Hogan emphasized. "Through the Air Force's strong cadre of space professionals, we stand before you today, ready to accept this role."

Approximately 60 civilian personnel at Dahlgren - former NNSOC employees who directly support Fence and ASCC operations - will continue to work in their current functions, only as Air Force employees. Eleven Air Force military personnel have reported aboard as the first uniformed members of 20th SPCS Det. 1.

An additional 100-plus contractor personnel will continue to support Dahlgren operations and operate nine remote field stations that make up the space surveillance sensor.

Design and construction of the Navy's "Fence" was begun by the Naval Research Laboratory in 1958. By February 1959, a network of six antenna sites stretching across the southern United States from Georgia to California was operational around the clock. Signals recorded at the sites as space objects passed through the high-energy radar were transmitted to the former Naval Ordnance Laboratory at Dahlgren. There, some of DoD's largest computers of that time calculated orbit predictions.

On Feb. 1, 1961, NAVSPASUR was established at Dahlgren as the Navy's first operational space command after Navy leadership recognized that the service had a particular need for a space detection system to provide the Fleet with operational data on orbiting satellites.

By mid-1965, the system had reached its current configuration of nine field stations with three transmitter sites at Lake Kickapoo, Texas, Jordan Lake, Ala., and Gila River, Ariz., and six receiver sites at Fort Stewart, Ga., Hawkinsville, Ga., Silver Lake, Miss., Red River, Ark., Elephant Butte, N.M., and San Diego, Calif.

The Naval Space Surveillance System field stations comprise a bi-static radar that points straight up into space and produces a "fence" of electromagnetic energy. The system can detect basketball-sized objects in orbit around the Earth out to an effective range of 15,000 nautical miles. Over 5 million satellite detections, or observations, are collected by the surveillance sensor each month.

Data collected by the Fence is transmitted to a computer center at Dahlgren, where it is used to constantly update a database of spacecraft orbital elements. This information is reported to the fleet and Fleet Marine Forces to alert them when particular satellites of interest are overhead.

Today, the Navy's space surveillance system is one of about 20 sensors that together comprise the nation's worldwide Space Surveillance Network directed by U.S. Strategic Command in Omaha, Neb.

For related news, visit the Naval Network and Space Operations Command Navy NewsStand page at

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