Space unit at Fort Carson Afghanistan-bound on a vital mission

March 9, 2014
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One of the last American Army forces to head to war in Afghanistan is from Colorado Springs.

No. It isn't from Fort Carson.

It's a half dozen space experts who work in an obscure office building by the airport for the 1st Space Brigade, an Army unit that gets as much attention as it seeks - very little. And these days, the Army can't fight without them.

"Space is a growing mission area," explained Lt. Col. Richard Zellman, who commands the brigade's 1st Space Battalion.

Growing is a bit of an understatement.

After first heading to war with Global Positioning System terminals for navigation 23 years ago, the Army has grown addicted to space-based capabilities. Every Humvee carries a satellite monitoring system that maps the battlefield, showing the location of friendly troops and enemies.

Satellites guide artillery shells and bombs, guide drones and see massive use for communication in an Army where soldiers now expect Internet capability in the remotest corners of Afghanistan.

And all that doesn't begin to touch how satellites have been weaved into the intelligence realm.

To keep all that technology running, and to help Army units exploit all the technology they can tap, the Army began sending Space Support Teams to war a little over a decade ago. Initially they were seen as satellite repair crews that could diagnose communication problems.

Now they play a massive combat role.

"It's one of those unsung hero type things," said Maj. Bob Hesslin, who is leading the space support team headed to Bagram, Afghanistan next month.

Working behind the scenes, the teams connect the dots on intelligence data, using satellite imagery and other technical means to build a picture of the battlefield that has proved useful in tracking down the main threat to American troops - insurgent bombers.

Zellman said the space team now in Afghanistan helped American troops track down 60 bombers, and were credited with saving 30 American lives with their space-based intelligence.

The team headed over this time is from the brigade's contingent of the Colorado National Guard.

They've been working for weeks to get ready, studying convoy security and hand-to-hand combat at Fort Carson as well as boning up on their space skills.

They Army doesn't own satellites - the machines in orbit are operated by Air Force Space Command in Colorado Springs.

But the Army is a huge consumer, especially with the advent of drones, which send huge piles of data through space and right to combat.

"It's about integrating the capabilities and tying them together," said Capt. Chris Meyer, who is headed to Afghanistan with the team.

The space teams get a lot of work done overseas, but most soldiers have never heard of them.

Their numbers are small and their mission is obscure.

"I'm in the Army and I didn't know we had a space battalion until I was assigned to one," Zellmann admitted.

Zellman's battalion has soldiers around the globe - Korea, Japan, Afghanistan, the Persian Gulf, Germany and Colorado. They do work including mapmaking and missile warning.

As the war in Afghanistan ends, the space troops are focusing on the Pacific.

Zellmann said no matter what direction the future Army takes, the need for space will grow.

"I love it every day," he said.

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