Air Force Space Command, Operations Center
Buckley Air Force Base
Air Force Reserve Chief Master Sergeant Tommy Connolly of South Boston, Massachusetts, a Southie, was on his day shift at the Buckley Air Force Base operations center in Colorado, eating a turkey on wheat. Listening to electronic dance music through his Beats earbuds hidden under his much larger headset, he had his ears on his music and his eyes on the flat-panel screens. Connolly was supposed to be paying attention to his array of widescreen flat-panel monitors on his console, but instead, he was waiting for his favorite song to start. He was a member of a US Air Force operations watch team that monitored the earth for intercontinental and submarine missile launches using space satellites. As he searched inside his lunch bag for dessert, he saw out of the corner of his eye a white flash rapidly appearing on his screen. Connolly quickly ripped the earbuds out and slipped his black Bose headset back on his ears.
Connolly turned his head for a moment and took a swig from his soda can, took a long solid stare at the screen, and went back to eating his lunch. The flashes came again, lasting about two seconds in length, then disappeared. What the hell is this? That’s unusual, he thought. No other indications were present. Not a missile warning, missile track, airspeed data, or any of the usual flight data that was frequently displayed by a somewhat routine missile launch.
A few more seconds went by, and the flashes appeared on the screen a third time. This time, they lasted about five seconds in length, then died off again. “Well, ain’t dis a wicked pissah…” Connolly said aloud, questioning the billions spent on the complex heat-detection system.
He leaned forward in his seat, adjusted himself to get comfortable, and moved the drink off to the left. With his right hand, he worked the mouse, scrolling in and out of a variety of settings on the satellite software. Connolly then wiped the moisture from his palm and onto his flight suit pant leg.
Connolly again saw the robust and lengthy white flashes this time and at first thought all the flashes might be software errors since last night’s update. Looking at an overlaid map image of central China northbound to Mongolia over a satellite feed, he leaned forward yet again toward the screens. He sat on the edge of his black-wheeled, cushioned seat, staring intently at the displays.
“Whe-rah ya, missile?” he said aloud to no one.
A few seconds more, he bit his lip and waited patiently while staring at the map. Nothing happened. He thought perhaps the light show of flashes had ended because all was calm. “Goddamn software must have corrected itself.” Still no movement on the screen, so he again went back to finishing his lunch.
Before Connolly knew it, the bedazzling light display started, and it didn’t stop. His screen suddenly filled with flashing warnings and rapidly filled with all sorts of indications of an airborne Chinese missile. Data such as airspeed, magnetic direction, color codes, heat temperatures, and depicted routes of flight were filling the screens. One screen even displayed weather in the vicinity, such as air and ground temperatures, dew point, cloud cover, wind direction, and atmospheric pressure. His screens were alive and signaling that something was amiss in China.
“Contact!” he yelled.
His headset and microphone, connected to the operations center floor communications, came buzzing with loud pulsed audio tones and alarms. No question now, as the first flashes he saw were most certainly not an error, and whatever he was looking at was making its presence known. At this point, the unidentified target was being automatically tracked by the sophisticated, complex, and expensive software.
“Connolly here, sir. We gotta frickin’ wicked flash. We got contact,” he calmly but loudly announced over the intercom. “She’s already flying. Tracking target.”
The massive, two-story satellite operations center facility at Buckley AFB, home of the 460th Space Wing, operated the nation’s space-based infrared system, known as SBIRS, as well as its older brother, the defense support program, known as DSP. These families of satellites were America’s early warning satellite systems that could detect missile, spacecraft, large earth-based fires, and nuclear explosions, using sensors from space that could detect infrared emissions nearly anywhere on earth. Chris Connolly was part of a much larger team of US Air Force and Air Force Reserve personnel that monitored the world, relaying the raw information to the sixteen intelligence community agencies, Missile Defense Agency, the Combatant Commands, and Pentagon, as well as the White House.
“What do you have, Sox?” asked the floor supervisor, Lt. Col. Jeff Reid, of the 2nd Space Warning Squadron, using Chief Connolly’s nickname derived from his love of his Boston Red Sox baseball team. Wearing an olive-colored flight suit full of Velcro patches and zippered pockets, Jeff Reid sat in a leather chair at the center of the room elevated a bit higher than the rest of the men and women monitoring the world’s launches. At a glance, it could be confused for Captain Kirk’s chair on the bridge of Star Trek’s Enterprise. The room, about the size and height of a high school gymnasium, was dimly lit and cool with air conditioning to keep all the information technology equipment from overheating. From Reid’s position on the floor, he was also able to see each of the individual watch standers’ monitors from a large set of wall screens in the front of the room.
“Central China, sir…ah…launch is new location that I’ve never seen before. Looks like now the target is over…an area…where there’s no known Chinese military bases,” replied Sox. With his thick, Southie accent, it took some time to develop an ear for what Sox was saying.
“All right…that’s unique. How much flight data do you have?”
Sox continued to look down at the screen, moving his cursor around and scrolling in and out with his right hand, searching for more signatures from the flash. He knew time was of the essence because the floor never knew if a country was launching a strike against another country, doing a flight test, or just launching an unannounced weather satellite. Time was almost always a priority.
There was, of course, the military reason for monitoring this area of the globe. China had giant DF-5 intercontinental-range ballistic missiles that could carry three or four nuclear warheads each. Adversaries knowing when other countries were going to launch ahead of time was always a plus, but in this case, seeing it live and already airborne was unsettling. The crews who monitored launches usually saw a target’s flash as the missile came out of the ground. The postboost vehicle, the bus, was the portion of the missile that released each warhead at its intended target, which also made a flash. Today, Sox saw none of that.
“Sir, this is way wicked. Ah…the computer doesn’t recognize the frickin’ launch signature,” announced Sox.
Reid walked from the center of the room, stepping off his supervisor platform, and headed toward the Asia region consoles. He stood over Sox, holding his laminated checklist, pulled his headset down off his ears, and parked it around his neck. Reid was careful not to tangle the trailing black intercom wire that connected his headset to the comms system but got caught up in it anyway. Reid stumbled on his way over and was somewhat embarrassed.
“Sox, what do you mean it doesn’t recognize it? What’s the computer’s estimate?” Reid asked.
“Sir…I just don’t know.”
“Come on, Sox. The computer has to know. We have every missile in the world in there. Right? Land-based DF-5s…DF-31As? Type 094 JL-1s and 2s from the submarines? We got it all…”
It was just last week when Reid was involved in a situation involving a fire off the coast of the Port of Long Beach, California, and it turned out to be a deck fire at sea on the HMS Duncan of the Royal Navy. Also, it was only a few years ago when a commercial jet aircraft exploded in midair over Michigan and FBI agents and investigators from the Department of Homeland Security came to Reid asking if he and his team detected anything, seeking answers to the possibility the passenger jet was shot down, versus an onboard bomb or technical issue with the airframe.
The DSP database was full of rich history spanning the 1970s to the present day, primarily designed to detect missiles from the former Soviet Union. The newer SBIRS encyclopedia of detecting nearly every heat signature on or over Earth was growing rapidly every day. Every signature rocket engine that ever existed, from all twenty-four countries that flew ballistic missiles, was recorded in those databases. From over twenty-two thousand miles overhead, the satellites located high above the equator were first cues, detecting the heat signature of most manmade and natural events. The newer SBIRS constellation size consisted of four satellites in a geosynchronous orbit and two in the highly elliptical orbit. This meant that the SBIRS satellites had to be launched way higher than most so they could match up with Earth’s rotation and hence essentially maintain the same spot over the ground during their useful lifespan. The mercury cadmium telluride infrared sensors could send Buckley an immediate warning and indication of a missile launch, live volcanos, and even forest fires.
The combined orbits of the newer SBIRS birds enabled the Buckley gang to retask the sensors, enabling robust scanning in both short and midwave infrared areas, enabling them to see the ground from space, while seeing a respectful revisit rate faster than DSP. This was all from a lightweight space vehicle that only weighed about one thousand pounds. These newer SBIRS, launched at the cost of near $19 billion for six satellites, were supposed to detect a launch faster than ever and precisely predict its aim point. Except for today.
“Sir, I just confirmed the target is already flying. Sensors missed the launch vehicle somehow. This baby is already passing fifty-seven thousand feet and climbing.” Talking faster than usual, Sox blustered out “target speed is passing Mach 4, heading zero-two-eight degrees true.”
“You gotta be freaking kidding me. All right…all right. Toward the Mongolia-Russia border area? Huh. OK, listen up everyone,” said Lt. Col. Reid, headset back on his head. He wanted the rest of the room of watch standers to know what was going on in the China region. Reid transmitted the situation to the rest of the floor’s team, who were monitoring others areas of Earth.
Looking across the room and beyond his seat was the noncommissioned officer of the watch, Senior Master Sergeant Bill Myers, standing with his tattooed, muscular arms folded and listening in on the situation. With over twenty-four years of service, Bill Myers, sporting a smaller version of an old-school handlebar mustache, displayed a certain senior crustiness that was straight out of central casting.
“Sergeant Myers. Hey, Senior…get me the group commander down here, then the NMCC on the phone,” said the colonel.
“Wait…wait…wait a minute. Hold on, sir. The target has changed direction to one-six-three degrees upon leveling off at seventy thousand feet. Now at Mach 5,” said Connolly, now dripping a bead of sweat onto his keyboard in an air-conditioned room.
“Changed direction…that much? For real? What the—? OK, copy,” replied Reid.
Jeff Reid was walking back to his supervisor area on the platform to speak with the National Military Command Center, the NMCC, back at the Pentagon. These were the nation’s watch standers for all global situations, from terrorist attacks to troop movements to humanitarian support to earthquakes. He wanted to make sure these folks were also informed of this event.
“Whoa!” yelled Bill.
“Whoa what? I’ve got to call this in, Bill. You know that.”
“Take a look up there…on the screen,” Bill Myers pointed, displaying the skull and crossbones tattoo on his forearm and a large black digital wristwatch.
Sox pushed back in his wheeled seat. It was obvious he did it regularly due to the black skid marks on the white-tile floor. He knocked over his empty soda can in the process, and it rolled loudly across the floor.
“Sir, the target’s gone. Disappeared,” replied Sox, pointing at the monitors.
“Gone? What do you mean ‘gone’? You can’t see it anymore?” asked Reid.
“Yeah. Yes, sir. Usually from this console, at this range setting, we see the object impact a target…or explode in the air if it’s wicked busted, or…ah…see it hit the ground. I’m seeing nothing,” said Sox, with a perplexed face as he pulled himself closer to the console. He moved the computer mouse around some more, changing the settings and scans.
“Stop. I’ve never heard of a missile disappearing,” commented Reid. “Find it. Now.” You could hear the tone of authority in his voice.
Reid stood silently for a moment, hands on his hips, focused on the six large wall-size screens in front of the room. He squinted his eyes. His intuition was telling him this was a significant event. And professional disaster in the making. Just over eighteen years of monitoring launches, and he’d never had one like this. So far, while on his watch, there was an undetected flash, an undetected launch, and a missile that was able to easily change directions more rapidly than ever seen, followed by a disappearance. Things weren’t looking good.
“Well, sir. Don’t know what to say,” said Sox as he stood up, shrugged, and put his hands in the air. He peeked around at the other screens in the room to see if they had something in their regions. After a brief moment, he looked at the empty soda can and sat back down.
Silence filled the air, and not a soul connected to the floor’s intercom said a word. In a very short amount of time, a strange and historical event that had never happened before, just took place in front of them. They went from silence to heart-attack mode to nothing, in what seemed like a few seconds. The keepers of the world’s launches, the very guardians that allowed Americans to sleep peacefully at night, for the first time in history, just lost a target. An unheard of ‘never’ event.
The only sounds were the blowing air from the vents in the high ceiling and the electric motors in the rotating red lights that resembled the emergency lights on the roof of a fire truck. Another seven or eight long seconds went by with no tones or voice chatter on the operations center intercom. The data feeds on the monitors were blank, more like flatlined, with no live tracking numbers on the target. Other watch standers stood and looked around the room at one another in disbelief, searching for answers. Then they turned to stare at Reid.
“Sox. Come on, kid. Anything?” asked Reid.
After another few moments of awkward silence, Sox spoke up, his head down, staring at the console and floor. Quietly, with a disappointing whisper into his headset, he delivered the right-hook punch. Sox cleared his throat. “This one has disappeared, sir.” Then silence.
Sox delivered the knockout news that everyone in the room already knew, announced just as quietly. After another lengthy pause, Sox put his hands to his face, rubbed his eyes, then moved the microphone to his mouth. “Sir. It’s gone.”
Copyright 2017 Lawrence A. Colby The DevilDragon Pilot: A Ford Stevens Military-Aviation Thriller
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