Secret intelligence, jobs of the future coming to base

The 178th Fighter Wing will soon start secretive intelligence work at the Springfield Air National Guard Base that no other Guard unit in the nation is doing.

In the almost nine years that the wing has done intelligence work, none of it was performed here because it didn’t have a secure enough building.

A Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility, or SCIF, is required for the handling of classified information, meaning that until the wing’s 178th Intelligence Group had such a place of its own to scrutinize satellite imagery and monitor foreign space launches, close to 300 Springfield Guardsmen worked at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

A 5,000-square-foot section of a base supply warehouse with space for 57 analysts is being renovated now at a cost of $750,000 to bring part of that work to Springfield in March or April. Construction started this past August.

“Even while they’re building it, you can’t have a cell phone in there. The construction workers can’t have a cell phone in there,” said Col. John M. Thompson, commander of the wing’s 178th Intelligence Group and its four squadrons.

By 2015, the Guard hopes to turn an additional 20,000 square feet of the warehouse into one big secure facility able to accommodate 225 analysts and even more work.

“We’ve got more Guardsmen working at Wright-Patt now than we have at any point in the 178th,” Thompson said. “There’s just a skeleton staff that’s out here.”

All said, ISR — intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance — missions represent the future of the Air Force, said Steven Bucci, a former Special Forces commander and former deputy assistant secretary of defense.

“It’s becoming the most important set of missions the guys in blue will do day to day,” said Bucci, a defense analyst for the Heritage Foundation. “Your guys in Springfield will be very busy.”

The wing, which traces its lineage in Springfield back to 1955, acquired an initial intelligence detachment at Wright-Patterson in 2004.

Even though the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure, or BRAC, process stripped the wing of its F-16 pilot instruction mission, it wasn’t until 2010 that the wing’s 800 airmen received their twofold new mission.

About 200 of them are tasked with remotely piloting the MQ-1 Predator, an armed reconnaissance drone, in such overseas locales as Afghanistan.

Those combat air patrols have been flown around the clock from the Springfield base since last February.

However, even more local Guardsmen — 299 in all — have been assigned unique intelligence jobs aligned with the National Air and Space Intelligence Center, or NASIC, at Wright-Patterson.

The 178th is the only Guard unit in the nation, Thompson said, involved with geospatial intelligence, space analysis and the exploitation of foreign technology.

Of those 299 guardsmen, 124 are full-time. Of the intelligence group’s total personnel, 75 percent have so far gone through intelligence school for retraining at Goodfellow Air Force Base in Texas, Thompson said.

Geospatial intelligence, Thompson said, is the analysis of satellite imagery.

As an example, he brought up the aerial photography of the Cuban Missile Crisis showing Soviet missile sites. Guardsmen in the 178th’s geospatial squadron are able to decipher what might otherwise look like benign markings in an image to the untrained eye.

The images, he said, come from areas of interest anywhere in the world.

Guardsmen involved in the technical exploitation squadron, Thompson said, might be tearing apart anything the United States can get its hands on, from foreign-made aircraft to rifles.

NASIC, which has more than 3,000 military and civilian personnel worldwide, officially was established as the Foreign Technology Division at the height of the Cold War in 1961.

The 178th’s fourth intelligence squadron performs computer network exploitation for the 659th Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Group at Fort Meade in Maryland.

“They’re cyber warriors,” Thompson said, adding that they’re not hackers.

Combined, the four squadrons produce what’s known as predictive intelligence, creating a complete picture of foreign air and space capabilities.

“We’re not real-time in the kill chain,” said Thompson, a former F-16 pilot who served as the last commander of the local 162nd Fighter Squadron.

Rather, they have another purpose.

“To prevent any sort of long-term or strategic surprise,” he said. “We’re not 24/7. We’re more like 9 to 5, long-term analysis.”

That makes the intelligence mission ideal for traditional guardsmen, Thompson said.

By 2015, three of the intelligence squadrons will be operating inside the fully operational, windowless secure facility in Springfield. The technical exploitation squadron, he said, will remain at Wright-Patterson, but under the management of the 178th locally.

It all adds up to a strengthened position for the local base in the event of another round of BRAC, Bucci said.

“It will pretty much solidify it,” Bucci said. “This is a great mission for your Guard unit. This one’s not going to go away for a while.”

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