A coalition space team made history during exercise Resolute Sentinel 23 (RS23), executing the first-ever defensive space control operation in U. S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) history and demonstrating the real-world impact of Agile Combat Employment (ACE) operations for space.
Operation Thundergun Express is a 21-day space deployment exercise nested under RS23, focused on space domain awareness training and providing real-world satellite imagery for host and partner nations. During the exercise, U. S. Space Force guardians, Colombian Air Force guardianes, and Ecuadorian Air Force members worked together to build mobile space detection systems at a forward operating location in Cali, Colombia, with command and control centered in Lima, Peru, said Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Whitaker, director of Space Forces for U.S. Air Forces Southern/12th Air Force (AFSOUTH).
During the exercise, the forward-deployed team rapidly detected and reported live-fire electromagnetic interference sent from an exercise input cell attempting to disrupt a commercial satellite on orbit over the Atlantic Ocean. The team made use of portable commercial off-the-shelf systems for the exercise, namely, the Olympus Bolt intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and Multi-band Assessment of the Communication Environment (MACE) systems.
“These readily-available systems allow us to train our partner nations using easily acquired, cost-effective capabilities that can be tailored to the mission at hand,” Lt. Col. Whitaker said.
Once partner nation teams were up-and-running largely on their own, an exercise input drove the space team to demonstrate the ACE concept of interoperability by forcing command and control of the systems to shift from the Joint Task Force Space Defense Commercial Operation headquartered in Peru to the field-based systems in Colombia. This marked the first time a space team has assumed expeditionary command and control of all RS23 space operations in the southern hemisphere, Lt. Col. Whitaker said.
After several days operating in Cali, a space-ACE proactive maneuver broke new ground as the team moved 30 operators and three mission systems via Colombian Air Force airlift to set up in a second forward operating location in Rionegro, Colombia, in an early morning maneuver, Lt. Col. Whitaker said. This rapid move and reset showcased their ability to quickly move in the area of operations, assuring uninterrupted space domain awareness and command and control, and achieving freedom of action to accomplish the commander’s intent.
“This is very important for our unit and the future because it shows that we can implement the ACE concept and forward-deploy a weapons system and be mobile and agile all at the same time,” said U.S. Space Force First Lieutenant Humberto Miranda, a flight commander with the 16th Electromagnetic Warfare Squadron, and the deployment commander of the MACE team and system for Thundergun Express. “This is huge for our partner nations as well because it shows that we can work with other nations that have never done what we are doing. This is a change in the game. We are going to the next level.”
Colombian Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Guillermo Poveda, commander of Thundergun Express, stressed the importance of training in new space missions for the future of Colombian space operations. “We are proud of our Colombian air and space capabilities,” he said. “We were happy to showcase coalition operations through the ACE concept.”
“We incorporated two combatant commands, two U.S. military branches, and eight nations, including the U.K.,” Lt. Col. Whitaker said. “The space ACE operation in RS23 typifies [U.S. Army] General [Laura] Richardson’s [SOUTHCOM commander] message to warfighters, that SOUTHCOM is the place to exercise and train.”
Captain Chante Barber, AFSOUTH chief of Strategic Integration in the Space Directorate and the lead space planner for RS23, said the exercise demonstrates the U.S. Space Force’s ability to deploy forces and execute global operations side-by-side with its South American partners, integrating key partners in the Western Hemisphere into space operations, protecting the critical and globally-used space domain.
“The best part of this exercise is witnessing the dedication of our partners as space professionals,” Capt. Barber said. “Their enthusiasm to train with us as one team is palpable, and I could not be more grateful to our host and partner nations.”
Colombian Air Force Colonel Nestor Cortes, chief of Space Operations, said the exercise has been an excellent opportunity to share doctrine, build new technology, tactics and procedures, and forge strong relationships that will allow Colombia to grow toward its goal of being a key part of the coalition in the space domain.
“I am overwhelmed by the professionalism of the coalition joint space team,” Lt. Col. Whitaker said. “Our hosts in Peru and Colombia gave us a world-class opportunity to test operational aspects of the future Space Forces Southern Component Field Command. We exceeded every goal for this exercise.”