Mission breakthrough at Otis

Col. Anthony Schiavi, commander of the 102nd Intelligence Wing, steps down from an excavator after punching a hole in a 1950s-era building at Otis Air National Guard Base yesterday. The building will eventually be replaced with a $14.4 million, 33,000-square-foot facility that will make Otis one of the top intelligence-gathering National Guard bases in the country.Cape Cod Times/Steve Heaslip

OTIS AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE — They sliced a ribbon on a temporary building, put shovels to dirt for a new one and busted through the concrete of a 1950s-era building with an excavator — all in the span of 20 minutes.

Four years after a federal commission changed its mission, the Massachusetts Air National Guard's 102nd Intelligence Wing took a major step back onto the battlefield yesterday.

Intelligence gathering

  • Video, photographs and audio are taken by MQ-1 Predator, MQ9-Reaper and RQ4-Global Hawks flying over war zones.

  • The video, photographs or audio are beamed back to the 480th ISR Wing at Langley Air Force Base, Va.
  • From there, data is sent to one of 20 Distributed Ground Stations, like the one at Otis, for processing and analysis.
  • The findings are sent back to the war zone.

Only this time, instead of flying jets into enemy air space, they're monitoring video, still photographs and audio gathered by unmanned aircraft, analyzing it and getting the information back to the battlefield.

"What a journey it has been," Col. Anthony Schiavi, commander of the 102nd Intelligence Wing, said before a gathering of military and Cape leaders. "The 102nd rose from a dark and uncertain future."

Yesterday, Schiavi gave a peek inside the freshly minted, $1.8 million initial operating site for the 102nd's Distributed Ground Station. No cameras or cell phones were allowed inside the 240-square-foot building filled with massive flat-screen monitors and banks of computer screens that are considered a weapons system. The mission is so secretive, the 102nd asked reporters not to disclose the exact location of the temporary building.

During the brief visit, video aired of a pickup truck under surveillance from an unmanned plane flying at 17,000 feet. The pickup could be seen streaking across a road with dirt kicking up behind the tires.

No specific questions about the mission were answered during the tours. "We need to err on the side of not giving out too much information," said Col. Jim Lefavor, commanding officer of the new facility and its mission.

The temporary building, which is heavily guarded, will eventually be replaced by a $14.4 million, 33,000-square-foot facility that will make Otis one of the top three intelligence-gathering National Guard bases in the country.

Construction is expected to begin soon and should be complete in 18 months, Schiavi said. This is the second mission to get up and running under the 102nd Intelligence Wing umbrella. Last spring, the 102nd's Air Operations Group began its work tracking global air missions.

At yesterday's ceremonies, the late-U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy was credited, along with U.S. Sen. John Kerry, U.S. Rep. William Delahunt and former Gov. Mitt Romney, with securing the new missions.

In 2005, after an 86-year tradition of the 102nd in manned aviation, the defense department's Base Realignment and Closure Commission decided to move the unit's F-15 jets — the ones that were the first to respond to the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center — to Barnes Air National Guard Base in Westfield.

All but 1 percent of the staff from the 102nd Fighter Wing — essentially a handful of pilots who followed the jets — decided to remain at Otis, Schiavi said.

The remaining pilots, mechanics and other support staff — some of them in their 40s and 50s — had to go through seven months of training in their new field, said Maj. Gen. Michael Akey, commander of the Massachusetts Air National Guard. Not only did the 102nd have a 100-percent graduation rate, but 30 were named distinguished graduates, he said.

The 102nd still employs 1,000 military and civilians, Schiavi said, and more could be on the way as the unit's mission grows.

The surveillance and reconnaissance work that will now be done at Otis puts the 102nd back "on the cutting edge of America's air defense system," said Maj. Gen. Joseph Carter, adjutant general of the Massachusetts National Guard.

The systems can also be used to help with the Guard's state mission, he said. In California, a Distributed Ground Station helped officials track wildfires, Carter said.

But the main job is to keep tabs on the battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan and to provide that information to commanding officers on the front lines, Schiavi said.

"Otis Air National Guard base is open, the 102nd is alive and well," Akey said. "Today is a great day."

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