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Watch the skies: How a US base in Greenland tracks ballistic missiles

THULE AIR BASE, Greenland — On July 5, a Soyuz rocket blasted off from Vostochny Cosmodrome in the easternmost territory of Russia, carrying with it 33 satellites, including a polar-orbiting Meteor M2-2 weather satellite owned by the Russian government and a host of cubesats and nanosatellites launched on behalf of universities and commercial entities. More…

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THULE AIR BASE, Greenland — On July 5, a Soyuz rocket blasted off from Vostochny Cosmodrome in the easternmost territory of Russia, carrying with it 33 satellites, including a polar-orbiting Meteor M2-2 weather satellite owned by the Russian government and a host of cubesats and nanosatellites launched on behalf of universities and commercial entities.

More than 3,500 miles away, the airmen of Thule Air Base in Greenland were watching, dispatching real-time reports to the Combined Space Operations Center, or CSpOC, at Vandenburg Air Force Base, California.

Located on the northwestern coast of Greenland, Thule Air Base is the U.S. military’s northernmost base and the only installation north of the Arctic Circle. It is home to the 12th Space Warning Squadron, a cadre of Air Force officers and enlisted personnel that provide 24/7 missile warning and space surveillance using a massive AN/FPS-132 radar.

U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Dave Goldfein is briefed by an airman from the 12th Space Warning Squadron at Thule Air Base, Greenland, on July 20, 2019. Defense News accompanied Goldfein on his first visit to the base. (Staff Sgt. Alexandra M. Longfellow/U.S. Air Force)

“In the case of the Russian launch, it was an advertised launch, and so information about the number of payloads and the launch location and intended orbit were published,” said Maj. Jason Bullock, the 12th SWS’ operations officer.

“We take that information and we use it to perform innovative mission planning to include computer modeling of how it will come through our coverage, and it helps us to task the radar in specific ways to direct energy in specific ways to ensure that we capture anything that comes through our coverage,” he told Defense News in a July interview.

Thule’s position on the globe and its radar’s 240 degrees of coverage — which projects over the Arctic Ocean and Russia’s northern coast — make it an ideal location to track intercontinental ballistic missiles and satellites in low-Earth orbit, including polar orbit satellites.

On a given day, the 12th SWS will record the trajectories of hundreds of satellites, including dozens of “high interest objects” that the CSpOC deems worthy of additional attention based on its country of origin, payload or mission, Bullock said.

It also keeps a constant watch for activities that may indicate the United States is under threat of nuclear attack via ICBMs or submarine-launched nuclear missiles.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Dave Goldfein visited Thule for the first time July 20, accompanied by Defense News. In an interview after the trip, he said he was struck by the spartan conditions and harsh environment of the remote air base. In the summer, days last 24 hours, and the sun never sets. In the winter, the opposite is true, with no daylight for months.

Finding “happy lights” said to boost serotonin stashed in the corner of a conference room is not an uncommon sight, and airmen get used to having only sporadic cellphone and internet access.

There is no nearby town, so all airmen — who are deployed for one-year periods — live in dormitories. Cars, equipment and the base’s 1960s-era generator are powered by JP-8 jet fuel. The base’s solitary runway — while still operational — is in need of repair, and whole hangars lay abandoned and unusable, their floors cracked and uneven due to being built on permafrost.

The AN/FPS-132 radar operated by the 12th SWS, which Bullock said is roughly 10 years old, is one of the newer pieces of technology on-site and has also undergone periodic software upgrades since being fielded.

But basically the facilities at Thule are “sort of 1960s technology,” Goldfein said.

“They’re doing a great job of taking care of them. But how long do you keep them up and running with the harsh conditions they live with?” he wondered. “That’s something I’ll be talking to our installations and environments folks and civil engineers just to give me an update on what our way ahead is. This is critical terrain. We’re going to be there for a while.”

Besides being a critical site for missile defense and space situational awareness, Thule hosts the Defense Department’s northernmost deep-water seaport and airfield. Those physical attributes are often overlooked when talking about the strategic importance of Thule, said Heather Conley, the senior vice president for Europe, Eurasia and the Arctic at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“We have not thought more creatively about how to use Greenland,” Conley said.

“China has,” she added, pointing to the nation’s interest in building airports and research facilities in Greenland.

If the Air Force presses to modernize Thule’s infrastructure, it also will be on the heels of ongoing Russian efforts to do the same. The U.S. Defense Department’s new Arctic strategy, released in June, notes that Russia has “gradually strengthened” its presence in the region by refurbishing old airfields and infrastructure in the Arctic, establishing new bases along its northern coastline, and setting up a mesh of air defense systems, early warning radars and sensors.

“To ensure a credible deterrent for the Arctic, DoD must be able to quickly identify threats in the region, respond promptly and effectively to these threats, and shape the security environment to reduce or mitigate the prospects of these threats manifesting in the future,” the strategy states.

But although the strategy cites the challenges that Russia and China pose in the Arctic, it’s unclear whether the Department of Defense is ready make the investments in its Arctic bases necessary to maintain access and deter potential adversaries, Conley said.

“We need to move to implementation, but that’s where you don’t see the dollars in the budget,” she added.

Operating at the top of the world

On the top of a hill sits an austere building capped with two enormous radar faces. The site is home to the 12th Space Warning Squadron, but could easily be mistaken for a set from John Carpenter’s landmark 1982 horror film “The Thing.” Inside are airmen providing security and monitoring the radar feed, as is always the case.

The headquarters of the 12th Space Warning Squadron at Thule Air Base, Greenland. The 12th SWS operates the Upgraded Early Warning Radar, which provides missile defense and space surveillance. (Staff Sgt. Alexandra M. Longfellow/U.S. Air Force)

No matter whether the 12th SWS is tracking a rocket launch or an ICBM, the mission starts with a cue from the Air Force’s Space Based Infrared System, or SBIRS, satellites, which can detect the heat signature of a launch. Then it’s time for the airmen of the 12th SWS to figure out how to best utilize the radar to gather as much information as possible.

“In the unlikely event that the radar believes it has detected a missile, it will go into sight-reporting mode and will direct extra energy on the object, and the crew will gather all information that’s available about the health of our system to determine if the sight report is valid, anomalous or under investigation,” Bullock said. The squadron will also collect information about the trajectory of the object; and if it’s a missile, what its impact location might be.

As data comes in from SBIRS, the 12th SWS will send a report to the Missile Warning Center at Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station in Colorado Springs, Colorado, whose personnel will determine whether the object in question is a ballistic missile.

“As part of that, it’s critical that we perform our reports in a timely manner,” Bullock said. “We have very strict reporting requirements. Because by the time our radars detect an incoming missile, there is very little time to respond.”

It’s a high-pressure situation for the crews who work 12-hour shifts for three days at a time — and sometimes end up having to spend the night on-site when snowy weather makes it too dangerous to drive to and from the dorms.

The radar feed is controlled by three airmen, usually an officer who acts as crew commander and two enlisted personnel, who also make phone calls to other space and missile defense organizations, while keeping up with the latest intelligence reports and monitoring the health of the radar.

The United States has never been under attack by an ICBM, but false alarms do happen. “There are occasional times where an object would be returning to Earth in a ballistic trajectory, and the radar may interpret it as a ballistic trajectory, and so it will go into sight-reporting mode. It could be a decaying satellite [or] just a satellite in low-Earth orbit,” Bullock said.

Although the squadron’s primary mission is missile defense and missile warning, its secondary mission of providing constant space situational awareness keeps it busy most days.

“In some cases we will task the radar in a specific manner to ensure we get the object,” Bullock said. “All of our space surveillance goes to the Combined Space Operations Center and helps us to build what’s called an element set, which allows us to know where the object is in space and where it’s going. And that’s all collected in the space track catalog maintained at Vandenburg.”

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US sends mechanized troops back into Syria

Bradley fighting vehicles have headed back into eastern Syria, the Pentagon announced Friday, a move that comes after a tense encounter with Russian forces left four U.S. troops lightly injured last month. The return of mechanized units also comes as the U.S. military deployed Sentinel radar and increased the frequency of fighter jet patrols over…

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US sends mechanized troops back into Syria

Bradley fighting vehicles have headed back into eastern Syria, the Pentagon announced Friday, a move that comes after a tense encounter with Russian forces left four U.S. troops lightly injured last month. The return of mechanized units also comes as the U.S. military deployed Sentinel radar and increased the frequency of fighter jet patrols over U.S. forces in that part of Syria, according to U.S. Central Command spokesman Navy Capt. Bill Urban. “These actions are a clear demonstration of U.S. resolve to defend Coalition forces in the [Eastern Syria Security Area], and to ensure that they are able to continue their Defeat-ISIS mission without interference,” Urban said in an emailed statement. “The Defense Department has previously deployed Bradleys to northeast Syria pursuant to these goals.” Bradleys from the 30th Armored Brigade Combat Team were last sent to Syria in late October 2019 to guard oil infrastructure from Islamic State militants, officials said at the time. They were quietly pulled out after roughly a month when combined patrols with Turkish forces “never materialized” and the “mission requirements changed,” a military official in the region previously told Army Times. The armored vehicles sent back this month belong to 2nd Brigade, 1st Armored Division, out of Fort Bliss, Texas. The unit is deployed to the Middle East in support of Operation Spartan Shield, which is based in Kuwait. Sign up for the Army Times Daily News Roundup Don’t miss the top Army stories, delivered each afternoon (please select a country)United StatesUnited KingdomAfghanistanAlbaniaAlgeriaAmerican SamoaAndorraAngolaAnguillaAntarcticaAntigua and BarbudaArgentinaArmeniaArubaAustraliaAustriaAzerbaijanBahamasBahrainBangladeshBarbadosBelarusBelgiumBelizeBeninBermudaBhutanBoliviaBosnia and HerzegovinaBotswanaBouvet IslandBrazilBritish Indian Ocean TerritoryBrunei DarussalamBulgariaBurkina FasoBurundiCambodiaCameroonCanadaCape VerdeCayman IslandsCentral African RepublicChadChileChinaChristmas IslandCocos (Keeling) IslandsColombiaComorosCongoCongo, The Democratic Republic of TheCook IslandsCosta RicaCote D’ivoireCroatiaCubaCyprusCzech RepublicDenmarkDjiboutiDominicaDominican RepublicEcuadorEgyptEl SalvadorEquatorial GuineaEritreaEstoniaEthiopiaFalkland Islands (Malvinas)Faroe IslandsFijiFinlandFranceFrench GuianaFrench PolynesiaFrench Southern TerritoriesGabonGambiaGeorgiaGermanyGhanaGibraltarGreeceGreenlandGrenadaGuadeloupeGuamGuatemalaGuineaGuinea-bissauGuyanaHaitiHeard Island and Mcdonald IslandsHoly See (Vatican City State)HondurasHong KongHungaryIcelandIndiaIndonesiaIran, Islamic Republic ofIraqIrelandIsraelItalyJamaicaJapanJordanKazakhstanKenyaKiribatiKorea, Democratic People’s Republic ofKorea, Republic ofKuwaitKyrgyzstanLao People’s Democratic RepublicLatviaLebanonLesothoLiberiaLibyan Arab JamahiriyaLiechtensteinLithuaniaLuxembourgMacaoMacedonia, The Former Yugoslav Republic ofMadagascarMalawiMalaysiaMaldivesMaliMaltaMarshall IslandsMartiniqueMauritaniaMauritiusMayotteMexicoMicronesia, Federated States ofMoldova, Republic ofMonacoMongoliaMontserratMoroccoMozambiqueMyanmarNamibiaNauruNepalNetherlandsNetherlands AntillesNew CaledoniaNew ZealandNicaraguaNigerNigeriaNiueNorfolk IslandNorthern Mariana IslandsNorwayOmanPakistanPalauPalestinian Territory, OccupiedPanamaPapua New GuineaParaguayPeruPhilippinesPitcairnPolandPortugalPuerto RicoQatarReunionRomaniaRussian FederationRwandaSaint HelenaSaint Kitts and NevisSaint LuciaSaint Pierre and MiquelonSaint Vincent and The GrenadinesSamoaSan MarinoSao Tome and PrincipeSaudi ArabiaSenegalSerbia and MontenegroSeychellesSierra LeoneSingaporeSlovakiaSloveniaSolomon IslandsSomaliaSouth AfricaSouth Georgia and The South Sandwich IslandsSpainSri LankaSudanSurinameSvalbard and Jan MayenSwazilandSwedenSwitzerlandSyrian Arab RepublicTaiwan, Province of ChinaTajikistanTanzania, United Republic ofThailandTimor-lesteTogoTokelauTongaTrinidad and TobagoTunisiaTurkeyTurkmenistanTurks and Caicos IslandsTuvaluUgandaUkraineUnited Arab EmiratesUnited KingdomUnited StatesUnited States Minor Outlying IslandsUruguayUzbekistanVanuatuVenezuelaViet NamVirgin Islands, BritishVirgin Islands, U.S.Wallis and FutunaWestern SaharaYemenZambiaZimbabwe Subscribe × By giving us your email, you are opting in to the Army Times Daily News Roundup. “The mechanized infantry assets will help ensure the force protection of coalition forces in an increasingly complex operating environment in northeast Syria,” said Col. Wayne Marotto, spokesman for the Inherent Resolve mission. “The coalition forces remain steadfast in our commitment of ensuring the enduring defeat of Daesh [ISIS].” U.S. and Russian officials traded blame in late August after troops from both countries collided in northeast Syria while on patrol. A Russian vehicle sideswiped a light-armored American one, injuring four U.S. troops, while two Russian helicopters flew about 70 feet over top the altercation, U.S. officials said following the incident. For their part, Russian officials said U.S. troops were blocking their ground patrol and Russian military police “took the necessary measures to prevent an incident and to continue the fulfillment of their task.” Though the U.S. and Russian militaries have protocols to prevent such incidents, there have nevertheless been less worrisome altercations periodically over the past year. Russian forces are in the country backing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and have long called for U.S. troops to leave. “The United States does not seek conflict with any other nation in Syria, but will defend Coalition forces if necessary,” Urban added in his statement. Despite the loss of ISIS’ territorial caliphate and the slaying of its leader last year in a U.S. raid, the extremist group has continued to launch deadly attacks in Iraq and Syria. There are roughly 500 U.S. troops in Syria’s northeast guarding oil fields from ISIS and working alongside the Syrian Democratic Forces.

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It’s been a bad week on social media for military appreciation

For a nation enamored with yellow ribbons, PDA for men and women in uniform, and shouting “Support Our Troops” into the void until our lungs collapse, we sure seem to know very little about the individuals being supported. At least that’s one takeaway from a series of recent military-themed social media gaffes on the part…

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It’s been a bad week on social media for military appreciation

For a nation enamored with yellow ribbons, PDA for men and women in uniform, and shouting “Support Our Troops” into the void until our lungs collapse, we sure seem to know very little about the individuals being supported. At least that’s one takeaway from a series of recent military-themed social media gaffes on the part of accounts run by government departments and U.S. officials. Friday yielded multiple mistakes of the sort when, first, the U.S. Department of State extended the U.S. Air Force a happy 73rd birthday wish that was accompanied by an image featuring F/A-18 Hornets flown by the Navy’s Blue Angels. The image, which depicts the obvious blue and gold color scheme unique to the Navy’s flight demonstration squadron, includes one plane that even shows the underside of its wings, a part that universally includes “US NAVY” painted in size 11-million block font. The U.S. Navy Blue Angels demonstrate the capabilities of the F/A-18 Hornet at the 2019 Marine Corps Air Station Miramar Air Show on MCAS Miramar, Calif., Sept. 28. (Pfc. Mackson/Marine Corps) Echoing the State Department, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., sent the Air Force some birthday well wishes that, again, were accompanied by the Navy’s world-renowned team. Never a state to be outdone, Texas Congressman John Carter ramped up the Air Force birthday-Blue Angels whoops parade with a jumbled image featuring an F-22 Raptor, the Blue Angels, and his campaign insignia. Even the mistakes are bigger in Texas. Sign up for the Early Bird Brief Get the military’s most comprehensive news and information every morning (please select a country)United StatesUnited KingdomAfghanistanAlbaniaAlgeriaAmerican SamoaAndorraAngolaAnguillaAntarcticaAntigua and BarbudaArgentinaArmeniaArubaAustraliaAustriaAzerbaijanBahamasBahrainBangladeshBarbadosBelarusBelgiumBelizeBeninBermudaBhutanBoliviaBosnia and HerzegovinaBotswanaBouvet IslandBrazilBritish Indian Ocean TerritoryBrunei DarussalamBulgariaBurkina FasoBurundiCambodiaCameroonCanadaCape VerdeCayman IslandsCentral African RepublicChadChileChinaChristmas IslandCocos (Keeling) IslandsColombiaComorosCongoCongo, The Democratic Republic of TheCook IslandsCosta RicaCote D’ivoireCroatiaCubaCyprusCzech RepublicDenmarkDjiboutiDominicaDominican RepublicEcuadorEgyptEl SalvadorEquatorial GuineaEritreaEstoniaEthiopiaFalkland Islands (Malvinas)Faroe IslandsFijiFinlandFranceFrench GuianaFrench PolynesiaFrench Southern TerritoriesGabonGambiaGeorgiaGermanyGhanaGibraltarGreeceGreenlandGrenadaGuadeloupeGuamGuatemalaGuineaGuinea-bissauGuyanaHaitiHeard Island and Mcdonald IslandsHoly See (Vatican City State)HondurasHong KongHungaryIcelandIndiaIndonesiaIran, Islamic Republic ofIraqIrelandIsraelItalyJamaicaJapanJordanKazakhstanKenyaKiribatiKorea, Democratic People’s Republic ofKorea, Republic ofKuwaitKyrgyzstanLao People’s Democratic RepublicLatviaLebanonLesothoLiberiaLibyan Arab JamahiriyaLiechtensteinLithuaniaLuxembourgMacaoMacedonia, The Former Yugoslav Republic ofMadagascarMalawiMalaysiaMaldivesMaliMaltaMarshall IslandsMartiniqueMauritaniaMauritiusMayotteMexicoMicronesia, Federated States ofMoldova, Republic ofMonacoMongoliaMontserratMoroccoMozambiqueMyanmarNamibiaNauruNepalNetherlandsNetherlands AntillesNew CaledoniaNew ZealandNicaraguaNigerNigeriaNiueNorfolk IslandNorthern Mariana IslandsNorwayOmanPakistanPalauPalestinian Territory, OccupiedPanamaPapua New GuineaParaguayPeruPhilippinesPitcairnPolandPortugalPuerto RicoQatarReunionRomaniaRussian FederationRwandaSaint HelenaSaint Kitts and NevisSaint LuciaSaint Pierre and MiquelonSaint Vincent and The GrenadinesSamoaSan MarinoSao Tome and PrincipeSaudi ArabiaSenegalSerbia and MontenegroSeychellesSierra LeoneSingaporeSlovakiaSloveniaSolomon IslandsSomaliaSouth AfricaSouth Georgia and The South Sandwich IslandsSpainSri LankaSudanSurinameSvalbard and Jan MayenSwazilandSwedenSwitzerlandSyrian Arab RepublicTaiwan, Province of ChinaTajikistanTanzania, United Republic ofThailandTimor-lesteTogoTokelauTongaTrinidad and TobagoTunisiaTurkeyTurkmenistanTurks and Caicos IslandsTuvaluUgandaUkraineUnited Arab EmiratesUnited KingdomUnited StatesUnited States Minor Outlying IslandsUruguayUzbekistanVanuatuVenezuelaViet NamVirgin Islands, BritishVirgin Islands, U.S.Wallis and FutunaWestern SaharaYemenZambiaZimbabwe Subscribe × By giving us your email, you are opting in to the Early Bird Brief. (Screengrab @JudgeJohnCarter) Navy officials eventually caught on to the trend of gross misidentification. “Happy birthday @usairforce, but we’re not giving you the @BlueAngels,” the Navy Chief of Information account tweeted. “Aircraft carriers are also only @USNavy.” Most of the proofreading-free accounts wisely deleted their misguided well-wishes once they arrived at the realization that a plane in the air does not automatically render it an Air Force plane. But thanks to Politico editor and dad joke connoisseur Dave Brown, there remains a treasure trove of commemorative screenshots. Aim high pic.twitter.com/VUsN1TOfO8— Dave Brown (@dave_brown24) September 18, 2020 Still, the Air Force’s birthday was just another example of a profound lack of basic military understanding by those who so often boast of military adoration until blue in the face. A campaign arm of the Republican National Committee and President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign, for example, recently circulated a “Support Our Troops” graphic featuring silhouetted Russian soldiers — one holding a Russian-made AK-74 rifle and another a German-made G36K — underneath three Russian MiG-29 fighter jets, a slip-up first reported by Politico. In theory the sentiment is not incorrect, since there was no specification on which troops are being supported. Still, it was just one of the litany of military-related social media fallacies to emerge during this week alone. The image, which was poached from a Shutterstock photo, was created by Russia-based photographer Arthur Zakirov, who confirmed to Politico that the campaign image was “a completely recreated scene from various photographs of mine.” “Today you hear about the Kremlin’s hand in U.S. politics,” he joked. “Tomorrow you are this hand.” In Soviet Russia, troops support you. The image marked another foreign service miscue for the administration, which, in 2015, tweeted a campaign graphic featuring Nazi Waffen SS World War II reenactors in the bottom right corner. [email protected] has deleted the tweet (finally) but here’s the pic, Waffen-SS very clear at bottom pic.twitter.com/Kv1GsdKQkw— John Schindler (@20committee) July 14, 2015 But don’t fret about a politicized slant on military-themed miscues — these inaccuracies on the part of politicians are a bipartisan pastime. Presidential hopeful Joe Biden made headlines recently for exhibiting a concerning pattern of recounting military stories that never actually happened. In 2019 Biden recalled a harrowing tale of a Navy captain in Afghanistan that was flooded with acts of extraordinary valor. “This is the God’s truth,” Biden told the meeting hall in New Hampshire. “My word as a Biden.” Interviews conducted by the Washington Post of more than a dozen troops, commanders and Biden campaign personnel, however, revealed that nearly every detail of “God’s truth” was false. Biden, the Post reported, appeared to combine portions of three separate events into a single story. Then there was 2012, when the Democratic National Convention showcased glorious footage of Russian ships steaming powerfully across open seas as a way to honor U.S. troops and their service. (As our friend Paul Szoldra over at Task and Purpose points out, there truly is a tweet for all occasions.) No surprise. @DNC displayed Russian ships in tribute to vets http://t.co/Q6BpWj0I Did they mean to honor the Russians?— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 12, 2012 Military-centric miscues on social media may occur relatively often, but seldom is the source of the mistake the military itself. On September 16, the U.S. Army’s official Twitter account tweeted a composite graphic featuring a soldier flanked by the words “I will never quit,” a line taken from the service’s Soldier’s Creed and Warrior Ethos. The U.S. Army tweeted and deleted this graphic from its official account on September 16, 2020. It features a British soldier, a U.S. Marine Corps helicopter (center), and several South African helicopters (background). The text of the tweet asked, “How do you live the #WarriorEthos?” Twitter users may have found the message more inspiring if the soldier, or any of the helicopters, actually belonged to the U.S. Army — or even the United States. Thanks to the blue patch on his right shoulder and the bullpup-style –– a distinct design in which the rifle’s magazine is located behind the trigger assembly –– SA80 assault rifle, Twitter users quickly identified the figure in the foreground as a British Army soldier. Noting the helicopters in the image, Darren Olivier, a South African military analyst and director of the African Defence Review, tweeted that that “the foremost helicopter is a USMC CH-33 and the helicopters in the background are all from a South African Air Force flypast featuring two Oryxes, two Rooivalks, three A109s, a BK-117 and a [South African Air Force Museum] Alouette III.” The Twitter account Angry Staff Officer, a semi-pseudonymous page operated by Maine National Guard officer Jonathan Bratten, tweeted, “A photo of a British soldier, a USMC helo, and some other foreign rotary winged aircraft? C’mon y’all, this isn’t that hard.” “Sometimes people make mistakes, and that is what happened in this case,” an Army spokesperson said in reference to the since-deleted tweet. Sgt. Maj. Mike Lavigne, sergeant major of Army Public Affairs, responded to the gaffe, saying, “Thank you for the dozens of DMs and tags. This is not the way the Army does business. 99% of our social media game is strong, but when it’s not, someone is held accountable and from today on, that’s me. See something wrong? I’m your POC.” Lavigne might be your POC for social media mishaps, but if you need articles that elicit a response of, “This isn’t news,” I’m your huckleberry.

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Special tactics airman drowned after ‘buddy pair’ system not followed in 2,000-yard swim

The training swim test in which a special tactics airman drowned March 19 was conducted without the usual “buddy team” system typical for such swims, an Air Force investigation found. The report did not reach any conclusions about exactly what caused Airman 1st Class Keigan Baker to drown in St. Andrews Bay, Florida, near Panama…

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Special tactics airman drowned after ‘buddy pair’ system not followed in 2,000-yard swim

The training swim test in which a special tactics airman drowned March 19 was conducted without the usual “buddy team” system typical for such swims, an Air Force investigation found. The report did not reach any conclusions about exactly what caused Airman 1st Class Keigan Baker to drown in St. Andrews Bay, Florida, near Panama City, while attempting to swim 2,000 yards. But, it said, the rules of the combat dive course stipulate that such 2,000-yard swims should be conducted with each swimmer paired up with and tethered to another swimmer of comparable ability to ensure a swimmer doesn’t get separated and into trouble. That was not done in this case. Baker had also taken two Unisom, an over-the-counter sleep aid, the night before the swim without medical authorization, in violation of Air Force instructions and the dive class policy. Its ingredients were still present in his blood at the time of his autopsy, the report said. Baker, 24, was a combat controller who enlisted in the Air Force in June 2018 and was assigned to the Special Tactics Training Squadron at Hurlburt Field, Florida, in January 2020. He was originally from Longview, Washington, and received a bachelor of arts degree from Eastern Washington University. He was on temporary duty to the Air Force Combat Dive School at the Naval Diving and Salvage Training Center at Naval Support Activity Panama City, Florida. The dive school, officially known as the 350th Special Warfare Training Squadron, Detachment 1, teaches students basic diving, advanced rescue diving principles and advanced combat diving fundamentals. Students at the dive school are required to finish a 2,000-yard surface swim — more than a mile — in simulated combat gear, to check each student’s swimming ability. Like his classmates, Baker wore a mask, a load-bearing vest with a pair of 2-pound weights to simulate ammunition magazines, a personal flotation device, a dive tool and a rubber AR-15. The swim in which Baker drowned took place on the fourth day of his class. Baker and his classmates took part in multiple physical activities, including a 1,000-yard surface swim while wearing gear, during the first three days. 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This surface swim was supposed to begin at 6 a.m. March 19, but a fog forecast prompted instructors to push it back three hours. Baker’s classmates said he appeared to be in good spirits, and they noticed nothing out of the ordinary, aside from mentioning soreness in his hip flexors the previous few weeks. During this swim, eight instructors and a safety diver took part — two more instructors than the minimum requirement. But there were a few changes from standard procedure, the report said. The ammunition pier that usually serves as the finish point was under construction, so the instructors instead used a floating barge about 100 yards east of the ammo pier to drop the buoy marker that served as the finish line. They also shifted the starting buoy marker 100 yards to the east of its usual location. There was also a privately owned, 65-foot yacht anchored in the swim path, the report said. An instructor checked to make sure there were no fishing lines coming from the yacht, and did not ask the yacht to move. There was also more boat traffic than usual during the swim, which the report said was attributed to the later than usual start of the swim, as well as people trying to get out on the water due to the coronavirus stay-at-home restrictions. At one point, an instructor on a boat broke away from the group of student swimmers to stop two civilian boats from entering the training area. Another instructor on a boat also directed a fishing boat away from the swim lane, and later directed swimmers around the 65-foot yacht. The students began the swim at about 10:15 a.m. Almost immediately, the swimmers noticed the current was pushing them northwest, though it wasn’t strong enough to present a safety risk. The student who was closest to Baker said he seemed to be having no trouble swimming, but after about 100 yards, that student lost track of who was swimming near him. Another student swimmer followed Baker, who was the stronger swimmer, for a while without noticing anything wrong. Baker pulled away from that student around the time they approached the yacht, and the student lost sight of him. One by one, a little after 11 a.m., the students began to reach the finish point. The instructors first realized something was wrong when two students still had yet to report their times, but only one student could still be seen swimming. The instructors took head counts, but Baker was nowhere to be found. The instructors began looking for him, and soon called the dive school superintendent to report a student was missing and ask for search and rescue help. In all, 87 personnel on 18 boats, a police helicopter, and a C-130 — including five dive teams and assets from the Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and Bay County Sheriff’s Office — searched for Baker for hours. A Fish and Wildlife Conservation boat ultimately detected something underwater on sonar at about 4:15 p.m. A diver soon found Baker’s body, which was then recovered. He was declared dead at 4:30 p.m. His dive gear was intact, the report said, and there was no sign he tried to activate his personal flotation device. There was also no sign of trauma or broken bones. The report concluded there was confusion among the dive school staff on the necessity of the buddy-pair system during 2,000-yard surface swims. The rules say buddy pairs should be used, and “buddy lines” are standard training equipment, the report said. But some instructors at the school felt swimming in pairs was inappropriate when they were supposed to be individually evaluating students. Two weeks before Baker’s death, the report said, several dive school instructors discussed using buddy pairs, and the “prevailing sentiment” was that they should be used for the 2,000-yard swim. Two days before the fatal swim, an instructor briefed the students on surface swims. The approved slide presentation listed buddy pairs and buddy lines, but the instructor told the students neither would be used for surface swims. This contradiction during the briefing contributed to instructors’ confusion, the report said. An instructor brought it up with the staff superintendent, who confirmed that buddy lines would not be used for surface swims and that they were to be individual assessments. The report said Baker was in good physical and mental health, though he was reported to use over-the-counter medication to help him sleep. He had some musculoskeletal problems common to special warfare airmen, the report said, but performed well at the fitness test and swims conducted earlier that week. “As a community, special warfare operators are driven, highly motivated individuals who strive to push themselves to the limits of their physical abilities,” the report said. Baker “was no exception, and fellow classmates classified him as one of the smartest and strongest in the class.” The report does not reach a firm conclusion as to what caused Baker to become incapacitated and drown, but lists several factors that may have contributed to it. Baker told an instructor that morning he had taken two Unisom capsules the night before the swim, and commented at breakfast that morning that he felt fatigued, the report said. His autopsy showed he had diphenhydramine levels in his blood of 54 nanograms per milliliter, the report said, more than the levels required to produce sedative effects. Diphenhydramine, or DPH, is the active ingredient found in Unisom. However, the report acknowledged that post-mortem changes can affect blood concentrations of substances between the time someone dies and the autopsy, and the blood measurements cannot reliably indicate the actual levels of DPH in his blood at the time of his death. Baker wore a full wetsuit during the swim for increased buoyancy, the report said. The wetsuit also would keep swimmers warm in cold conditions, but carried the risk of the swimmer becoming uncomfortably warm when swimming aggressively in warm weather. The weather and water conditions that day were mild, the report said, but an exertional heat injury could not be ruled out as a potential cause of his incapacitation. Exertional heat injuries typically happen when someone is strenuously exercising in a warm environment, the report said, as well as when loaded up with clothing, equipment and protective gear. The possibility of a heat injury can be increased by drugs and other substances that impair sweating, the report said. “Development of fatigue from exercise in the heat is multifactorial and associated with several physiologic processes, but the probability is amplified when combined with gear that both inhibits heat release and adds weight/drag, substances that can alter thermoregulation and psychomotor performance (antihistamine), and drive to perform at maximal effort,” the report said. Baker’s autopsy found no signs of head trauma, bone fractures or trauma to anything other than his lungs, which showed the effects of drowning. There was no evidence he had suffered a heart attack, stroke, or pulmonary embolus, had a seizure, or vigorously struggled while drowning, the report said. The autopsy findings did not support a diagnosis of heatstroke, the report said, but heat could not be ruled out as a factor.

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