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Silent Sentry: Defending the final frontier

U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Chris Hayes, a Bounty Hunter crew chief, and U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Lucas Woods, a defensive space control maintainer, both with the 379th Expeditionary Operations Support Squadron, manually redirect an antenna at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, Jan. 30, 2017. These antennas are an Operation Silent Sentry asset and help find and locate electromagnetic interference in the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Miles Wilson)

Staff Sgt. Chris Hayes, a Bounty Hunter crew chief, and Staff Sgt. Lucas Woods, a defensive space control maintainer, both with the 379th Expeditionary Operations Support Squadron, manually redirect an antenna at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, Jan. 30, 2017. These antennas are an Operation Silent Sentry asset and help find and locate electromagnetic interference in the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Miles Wilson)

U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Chris Hayes, a Bounty Hunter crew chief with the 379th Expeditionary Operations Support Squadron, uses a control to locate a satellite in space at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, Jan. 30, 2017. Hayes supports Operation Silent Sentry, which provides defensive space capabilities for the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Miles Wilson)

Staff Sgt. Chris Hayes, a 379th Expeditionary Operations Support Squadron Bounty Hunter crew chief, uses a control to locate a satellite in space at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, Jan. 30, 2017. Hayes supports Operation Silent Sentry, which provides defensive space capabilities for the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Miles Wilson)

AL UDEID AIR BASE, Qatar (AFNS) -- Air, space and cyberspace - these are the three domains that the United States Air Force strives to defend. Of these domains, space has become one of the most crowded and competitive. At any given time, there are innumerable signals being transmitted to and from satellites, with each signal taking up space in the electromagnetic spectrum.

“Space is now contested and congested,” said Deborah Lee James, the former Air Force secretary, during her State of the Air Force address in September 2016. “It is extremely important to everything that we do in the military, including precision guidance, navigation, missile warning, weather, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and communication.”

With so much of the Air Force’s capabilities relying on space assets, defense of these assets is becoming increasingly important.

So, how does the Air Force defend its resources in space? One answer to this question was a proof of concept system started in 2005. At that time, the 379th Expeditionary Operation Support Squadron was tasked with testing the capabilities of a new defensive space control system, which would protect U.S. Central Command’s satellite networks. The proof of concept was so successful that the operation remained active, and is now called Operation Silent Sentry.

“The current focus of Silent Sentry is to detect, characterize and monitor electromagnetic interference on signals of interest across the area of responsibility,” said Capt. Marcus Losinski, the Operation Silent Sentry commander.

Since its inception twelve years ago, Operation Silent Sentry has grown and become an important asset to not only the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing, but the entire CENTCOM theater.

2nd Lt. Kasey Crowe, a 379th EOSS Bounty Hunter crew commander , explained how the effectiveness of Operation Silent Sentry has increased through improvements made by its personnel.

“Just as the battle tempo and rhythm changes constantly,” Crowe said, “so does a tactical operator’s perspective on how to be a more effective weapon in a fight. The Silent Sentry team members are just that, ‘tactical operators’ and we are always trying to incorporate new tactics, techniques and procedures that will get us in the fight quicker and provide faster and more accurate products.”

Recently, the Silent Sentry team has been improving on several processes to help gain faster responses to interference, thereby allowing for quicker decisions on how to resolve the issue. One method that the team has implemented is called the overwatch concept. This concept allows for the Silent Sentry team to monitor specific frequencies for known patterns of interference, rather than observing a large group of frequencies, and thereby eliminate excess information to process.

“We have changed how we monitor the spectrum,” Losinski said. “We now follow an air tasking order-based signals priority list. This allows our weapon systems to be better tuned to catch and geolocate interference should it come up. That pre-tuning of the system allows us to get our data quicker and be more responsive.”

The team has also transitioned from simply responding to interference, to taking proactive measures to find and anticipate certain patterns of interference before they surface. By doing this, response times are decreased dramatically.

“When Silent Sentry planning processes can get ahead of the adversary by properly prioritizing tasking and proactively optimizing our resource allocation, we shift the philosophy towards anticipating what may come next rather than forcing ourselves into a responsive posture,” said Master Sgt. Daniel Dempsey, the Silent Sentry superintendent, “Our interference detection and refined geolocations process have been reduced from many hours to just minutes, and we can characterize that interference eight times faster than before.”

As the tactics and procedures of the Silent Sentry team are continuously being improved and worked upon, so too is the foundation for future teams to further improve the security of future defensive space control systems.

As Silent Sentry continues its twelfth year of deployed operations, its operators will continue to defend space-based communications, and at the same time refine and shape the future of the defensive space control mission.

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