Buckley Space Force Base prepares for the next frontier
AURORA, Colo. (AP) — For more than two decades, Col. Marcus Jackson’s fatigues have been emblazoned with the cinnamon font synonymous with the U.S. Air Force.
The newest commander of Aurora’s longtime Air Force installation has been a career military man with assignments across the country and world in his 23-year service, though his official title changed last year with the launch of the military’s newest branch: U.S. Space Force.
“You know, 22 years I’ve been wearing that spice brown being tied to the Air Force,” Jackson said from his new Aurora office. “And I grew up as a military brat because my dad was in the Air Force, so with that recent change — it’s a bittersweet situation.”
Jackson formally shifted to the Space Force — earning a blue name tag in place of his longtime brown one — in October.
That shift in hue on Jackson’s name plate is one of many surface-level changes slowly unfurling through local military ranks, though the mission remains the same, officials say.
Originally named Buckley Field after a Colorado pilot killed in France in the waning months of World War I, Buckley officially became a Space Force Base when Jackson took the reins from the former commander on June 4. The change came about a year after the military decommissioned the base’s longstanding 460th space wing tasked with detecting and tracing missile launches across the globe.
But the assignment of tracking missiles marches forward on a daily basis now under the purview of Space Delta 4, one of several such subdivisions under space operations command, but the only one in charge of missile warning.
Now largely composed of Space Force guardians, the group continues the work the 460th completed for decades.
“I would say that for the missile warning mission, nothing’s changed,” said Jackson, who was most recently assigned to Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado Springs. “ … We are going out and doing that mission and that mission is here to stay … We have a mission to go do, and we’ve got to go do it like we did yesterday and two months ago.”
In 2019, Buckley missile trackers tallied 930 missile launches and some 30,000 infrared events around the world, according to information released by the military. Jackson did not have updated numbers for 2020.
Last year, Buckley personnel received national accolades for saving lives during Operation Martyr Soleimani, a January rocket attack orchestrated by Iran against a joint Iraqi and U.S. military base in the Anbar province of western Iraq.
“If those Airmen on crew that night, specifically the warning officer at the warning station, if she had not done her job better than her training, … today we would be talking about dead Americans at (the al-Asad Air Base),” according to reporting in Air Force Magazine, a publication of the nonprofit Air Force Association, from February 2020.
No Americans were killed in the attack, though more than 100 have since been diagnosed with traumatic brain injuries, according to the same reporting.
“Delta 4 was able to provide that timely missile warning notification to our individuals down range at central command to save lives by allowing enough time for reaction,” Jackson said of Buckley’s role in the incident.
Day to day, some 90,000 people are still mulling across the sweeping base hanging off of East Sixth Avenue, shopping at the commissary, getting military haircuts for an advertised price of $14.40 and heading to myriad jobs and medical appointments scattered across the complex. Those with military credentials or affiliation can still nab a Whopper from the on-base Burger King about 100 feet from a store that sells vests capable of holding a kevlar shield at the tax-free Base Exchange.
And Buckley still plays host to all branches of the U.S. military — including the Coast Guard — thousands of national guardsmen, reservists and tens of thousands of local veterans and retirees, according to Kevin Hougen, president of the Aurora Chamber of Commerce. Military personnel from Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the U.K. remain in the mix as well.
There could be even more people within Buckley’s borders in the years to come depending on what shakes out with the shifting tides of military politics, Jackson said.
“From a personnel standpoint here on the installation … all that’s really driven by the expansion of the mission of Delta 4, so at this time we’re evaluating that,” he said. “There may be opportunities in years to come for more space force personnel to be on this installation.”
Both Hougen and Jackson said Buckley has opportunity to grow thanks, in part, to federal dollars former Republican Congressman Mike Coffman helped secure in 2017 so the base could nab hundreds of acres of land to promote growth and stave off encroachment issues with surrounding neighborhoods. Coffman previously argued that increasing the buffer zones around Buckley would better position the base to avoid potential closure, as well as attract future F-35s. The newer jets have a larger noise signature than their F-16 counterparts, and are therefore more prone to peeve nearby neighbors.
Aurora City Councilman Dave Gruber also touted several land deals brokered around the E-470 tollway between the city, Arapahoe County and Buckley to ensure that the base could win newer — and louder — jets in the coming years.
“Buckley owns all of the land necessary to support the noise contours of the F-35, so Buckley is in a very good position to get it,” he said.
Yet chances for prolific growth at Buckley and other Front Range military bases were largely dashed earlier this year following the announcement that space command — the Space Force’s headquarters — will eventually move from its temporary home in Colorado Springs to Huntsville, Alabama.
President Donald Trump decided to move U.S. Space Command from its temporary home along the southern stretch of Interstate 25 in the waning days of his administration.
Buckley was previously in consideration to house the command, but Hougen said all Colorado outposts in the running were dinged for the state’s soaring housing costs and abysmal public education funding.
Gruber, a retired Air Force colonel who served as support group commander at Buckley during his last assignment in the mid 2000s, said he has lobbied local education leaders to apply for federal funding available for children with parents who either live or work at Buckley. Those efforts are currently stalled, but even if Aurora schools had come into the additional money, it wouldn’t have moved the needle enough to buoy any of the local applications, according to Gruber.
“The school report that came out at the Air Force level was devastating to both Colorado Springs and Aurora,” he said.
Congress members Jason Crow, who represents Aurora, along with Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) last month penned a letter to President Joe Biden asking him to reconsider the basing decision.
“It (Colorado) is home to eight of the Space Force’s nine space deltas, the only reserve component space wing, and the sole Army space brigade. Colorado’s premier space facilities have also attracted a workforce able to support both the intelligence community and Department of Defense space missions,” the lawmakers wrote in the letter. “Colorado is home to nearly 1,000 aerospace companies and suppliers, and the state is home to the nation’s largest concentration of aerospace employees. We believe that the operational integration between IC and DoD space communities and other joint sites in Colorado as well as the total cost to the government must be considered when making the final basing decision.”
Still, Buckley is positioned to net more jobs and workers in the coming years due, in part, to a planned expansion at Peterson Air Force Base in the Springs, which recently agreed to nix a nearby golf course and add more structures.
“As Peterson grows, we grow,” Hougen said.
Currently, the Aurora base bedecked with its famous golf ball-shaped radomes pumps about $1.3 billion into the local economy each year and provides the launchpad for some 5,500 jobs, according to annual economic impact reports.
For most of the 2000s, Buckley regularly fed more than $1 billion into the city economy, largely due to frequent construction projects that were required to update the base after its transition from an Air National Guard Base in 2000. But economic injections began sagging at the beginning of last decade and hovered around $900 million for several years. Two years ago marked the first time in about a decade Buckley had surpassed a $1 billion annual economic impact.
Thousands of aerospace contract workers move in and out of the base each day, Hougen said, with as many as 200 service members — many of whom are trained in aerospace themselves — leaving the base and entering the local workforce each month.
“There’s a lot of innovation that happens out at Buckley, and we tend to forget that,” he said. “They’re kind of a silent partner out there, that’s for sure. But with the quality of life in Colorado compared to other bases and states … people like to be transferred here, and often they retire here. People like to come here and like to have it as their last assignment.”
Gruber, who elected to retire from the military following his last assignment at Buckley after a quarter-century-long career, agreed.
“We liked it here in Colorado,” said the councilman, who opted to stay and join the private sector as an engineer instead of taking another military assignment in Shreveport, Louisiana. “If you have to get out sometime, getting out in Colorado is not a bad thing to do.”
While still employed for the military, Jackson, who calls San Antonio, Texas his hometown despite multiple moves around the globe as a youngster, said he plans to enjoy his new proximity to Denver to attend Nuggets and Broncos games with his wife and three kids.
He said Buckley personnel could catch a glimpse of him rollerblading across the installation this summer as he acquaints himself with the local trail systems.
“I’m old,” he said with a chuckle. “I need the kneepads, the elbow pads, everything — the full kit and caboodle. The older you get, the recovery time is longer. … I’m 46 going on 80.”