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First Air Force takes on new role supporting US Space Command

The Air Force has tapped Florida-based First Air Force as the new air component to U.S. Space Command, providing air support to the military’s daily space operations.

It’s the latest step as part of the Pentagon’s sweeping slate of space reforms that have breathed new life into SPACECOM and revamped how the military wields satellites and radars.

First Air Force, headquartered at Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla., will command and control the USAF assets that assist SPACECOM on everyday missions, with a particular focus on domestic airspace. That stems from the organization’s longtime work with U.S. Northern Command and NORAD to protect the continental U.S., U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico from attack.

“First Air Force was the natural choice to serve as Air Force component to U.S. Space Command,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles “CQ” Brown said in a March 11 release. “In this new role, First Air Force will be better able to identify and address gaps and seams when integrating spacepower into the support of the homeland defense mission. This will also inform efforts to better fuse space operations into air operations centers around the globe.

That indicates First Air Force will look at new ways to incorporate satellite communications, missile tracking and other types of space data into daily homeland defense. It plans to continue operating as Air Forces Northern even as it puts more attention on space.

First Air Force could also play a part in managing Air Force C-17s, HH-60s and other rescue forces dispatched when certain astronauts are stranded at sea, such as in case of an International Space Station evacuation.

“The U.S. Air Force is a critical contributor to the U.S. Space Command mission as evidenced by their support to human spaceflight,” SPACECOM boss Army Gen. James Dickinson said in the release. “We welcome First Air Force to our joint team.”

Dickinson argues his command is unique because it enables U.S. military campaigns by passing data around the world, but also needs friendly forces to protect satellite ground controls or to go after enemies that are interfering with American signals.

The Air Force is the last service to decide which of its troops will support the newest combatant command, revived in 2019 after a 17-year hiatus. Because most military space assets have moved from the Air Force to the Space Force since December 2019, the Air Force has rethought how it might contribute to those missions through an air-only lens.

Other service components to SPACECOM include the Space Force’s Space Operations Command, Marine Corps Forces Space Command, the Navy’s U.S. Fleet Cyber Command, and the Army’s Space and Missile Defense Command. SPACECOM takes those space personnel and resources offered by each branch of the armed forces and uses them to direct aircraft and GPS-guided weapons, detect rocket launches, jam enemy communications and more.

In the coming months, Air Combat Command will look at how First Air Force’s training and resources should change to best support SPACECOM. The organization should be ready to step into its new role by the end of 2021, the Air Force said.

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