Command visit prompts tech upgrade

By NORAD and USNORTHCOM Public Affairs | February 11, 2009

TYNDALL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. – A command visit to the Joint Task Force-Space Transportation System, operations center prompted a major overhaul in the force tracking system used during space shuttle launches.

During previous shuttle launches, Air Forces Northern commander Maj. Gen. Hank Morrow„s rescue teams, tracked the location of task force personnel and assets simply by using a grease pencil and wall map. Realizing the need to leverage today‟s modern technology, General Morrow tasked the AFNORTH Director of Space Forces, Lt. Col. Andy Lasher, to develop a solution to improve force tracking.

“After much research and consultation with other experts throughout the Department of Defense community, we were able to find the most readily available and versatile solution,” said Colonel Lasher. “I focused on proven, space-leveraging technologies to support this vital mission of international interest.”

“This was a true team effort,” he continued. ”With contributions made by Naval Air Systems Training Systems Division, U.S. Joint Forces Command, U.S. Northern Command, U.S. Forest Service and the Army Component to U.S. Strategic Command, we were able to use current Global Positioning System satellite technology to integrate 'Blue Force Trackers' into the JTF regimen.”

Blue Force Trackers are paperback-sized devices that communicate via commercial and government satellites to relay the current speed and position of a specific device at predetermined intervals. The signal is then transmitted to commanders and can be displayed on a variety of mapping software platform.

BFTs allow the JTF commander to visually track the locations of all of his airborne and water assets from a computer desktop. The graphical image has the asset's call sign and visually depicts the entire air picture in 3-D. The almost real-time awareness allows the commander to direct the nearest asset to where it is needed most. This decreases the response and rescue time, which in turn decreases the amount of time NASA's astronauts could potentially be drifting in the ocean, should they be forced to egress the orbiter.

“The Blue Force Trackers provide greater visibility of the assets operating below or beyond line-of-sight, yielding immediate information to the decision makers,” said Colonel Lasher. “The trackers are equipped with an immediate capability for aircrews to report emergency situations regardless of the position globally.”

The tracking system is currently used by U.S. Army, Marines, Air Force and the United Kingdom in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Space Forces director has also implemented BFTs into other assets for AFNORTH missions, such as enhanced storm tracking with the Hurricane Hunters, wildfire suppression, hurricane response operations, and the Modular Aerial Spraying Systems insect abatement program.

As a result of his work implementing the BFTs into Search & Rescue and the JTF, Colonel Lasher was nominated for the 2008 Florida National Defense Space Award.

“I was very excited and proud to be nominated for this prestigious award,” he said. “What good fortune to work daily with a team of dedicated professionals and be assigned to AFNORTH, where we successfully execute many diverse air and space missions. It was an honor to even be considered.”

The award is given annually by the National Space Club Florida Committee to a single Department of Defense person, recognizing his or her significant achievements and contributions while on duty in the State of Florida.