The 39-acre AN/FLR-9 antenna, known as the elephant cage, is the most famous landmark on Security Hill since it was completed in 1965.

The 39-acre AN/FLR-9 antenna, known as the elephant cage, is the most famous landmark on Security Hill since it was completed in 1965. (Courtesy of MSOC)

MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan — When Col. Fred W. Gortler III was stationed at Security Hill nearly 20 years ago, things were very different.

As an Air Force watch officer in the massive intelligence center, he worked beside 2,000 people from all services with several hefty threats not far off.

Years later, he now commands a joint mission, with new threats and objectives. Technology has changed, the military has changed and the role of intelligence blossomed. But the job remains the same: intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

“Our role has always been to get the right information to the right people at the right time,” Gortler said. “If we’re doing our job, we are preventing war.”

On a hill near Misawa Air Base, surrounded by satellite domes and massive antennas, the Misawa Security Operations Center has served a silent role for 50 years as an intelligence center.

The center uses any available intelligence: satellite, space and radio frequencies, and human intelligence, among others.

The servicemembers who work there can’t celebrate their victories. They quietly work behind the scenes, developing and processing war-preventing information.

Next week, the center will toast its members with a 50th anniversary “dining out,” where 600 guests will praise work they might not be privy to.

The center collects and disseminates information to Misawa’s 35th Air Wing — and also any ship, plane, agency or command that needs it.

The post is not limited to any specific area. It creates situational awareness anywhere in the Pacific using an intricate network of communication and all available information.

The job is part science and part art, analyzing what is seen, Gortler said.

Just as 20th century war survived on fuel, today’s conflicts need intelligence. Sept. 11 — in particular — cemented that function “in ways we can’t even imagine,” Gortler said.

Security Hill was the first U.S. presence in Misawa, before an air base was established there. At the time, communications around the world went point to point, so Misawa’s geographic location was essential, said Lt. Col. Mark C. McLaughlin, deputy commander of the 373rd Intelligence Group, the Air Force component of the operations center.

Communications improvements and a changing global climate make location less important, he said. Technology and the role of intelligence now make the center vital.

The post has evolved in sync with world affairs and military needs. Since the end of the Cold War, the center’s staff dropped in half, but some of that is due to streamlining and merging the four services, McLaughlin said.

“Our physical location doesn’t necessarily have to be tied to needs,” said Cmdr. James E. Brokaw, the center’s vice commander and in charge of the Navy component. “Technology has allowed us to consolidate.”

When Gortler worked in Misawa years ago, the services worked distinctly. Today, they are fully integrated. Each provides its best attributes for the good of all, in accordance with the Defense Department’s emphasis on consolidation.

In keeping with its evolution, the center changed its name in July from the Misawa Cryptological Operations Center to the Misawa Security Operations Center.

Today there are 900 people working on Security Hill from all four services and the civilian world. They serve a list of commands: local, regional, Pacific and Continental United States.

The servicemembers working there — logisticians, engineers, intelligence specialists, communicators and information managers — are the top test scorers entering the service. Half are under 25 years of age.

As commander, Gortler rarely has to address discipline. His staff is dedicated and excited, even if they can’t always write home about their jobs.

Gortler hopes the 50th anniversary celebration, and the meaningfulness of their mission is just compensation.

“Sometimes our work is not glamorous. Sometimes it’s tedious,” he said. “But it is always essential.”

Security Hill’s past

Jan. 23, 1953: Air Force arrives: 1st Radio Squadron Mobile sets up at the site of the current center.Jan. 15, 1960: Navy arrives: 13 Naval personnel arrive from Naval Security Group Activity, Kamiseya, Japan.1963 to 1965: The AN/FLR-9 antenna, commonly known as the elephant cage, is built.September 1970: Army arrives: U.S. Army Security Agency Detachment, Misawa, created.July 1, 1971: Naval Security Group Activity, Misawa, created.Oct. 15, 1971: Marines arrive: Company E, Marine Support Battalion relocates to Misawa from Kamiseya. It was later absorbed into the NSGA.1980s: Geodesic dome-covered satellite “golf balls” are constructed.June 16, 2000: Army detachment becomes the 403rd Military Intelligence Detachment.Sept. 16, 2000: Air Force 373rd Intelligence Group activated.July 1, 2003: MCOC (Misawa Cryptologic Operations Center) becomes MSOC (Misawa Security Operations Center).Sept. 12, 2003: Command to celebrate 50th anniversary with a dining out.

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