KIRTLAND Air Force BASE, N.M. – Several times a year, a group of junior U.S. military officers and federal government employees use open source databases — such as the Internet and libraries — in an attempt to reveal potential weaknesses in the Department of Defense’s space systems.

More often than not, participants in the Space Countermeasures Hands On Program, usually known as Space CHOP, succeed in achieving their objectives.

Space CHOP is considered the leader in emulating the asymmetric, terrorist and rogue nation threat. The program is run by an Air Force civilian engineer, with help from two contractor consultants.

“Space CHOP gives a unique and incomparable look at the customer’s potential vulnerabilities from an asymmetric viewpoint,” said John Holbrook, an aerospace engineer and chief of space countermeasures, with the Space Vehicles Directorate here.

Space CHOP is actually the second “CHOP” type organization in the Air Force Research Laboratory. The first was organized in the early 1990s, and worked strictly for the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, later renamed the Missile Defense Agency. This program worked on exposing possible flaws in the proposed space-based shield which protected the nation from nuclear missile attacks. It was part of the Reagan administration’s Strategic Defense Initiative.

The CHOP concept proved so successful that the present program was formed in 1999. Space CHOP would be available to any military or government organization that needed an asymmetric threat assessment. The older program closed its successful run in 2003, leaving Space CHOP as the focus of all such open source threat emulation.

Following the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the Space CHOP’s client base and number of scheduled missions expanded. A few months later, the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center started funding the program, with AFRL’s Space Vehicles Directorate continuing administrative oversight.

The awareness level of the threat to U.S. systems posed by asymmetric threats has increased dramatically.

“The nature of our enemy has changed,” said Peter Withers, a Navy Reserve intelligence officer, and Space CHOP management consultant. “Space CHOP allows our customers to see themselves through the eyes of their adversaries.”

About four months long, a standard program mission involves four Air Force junior officers with a technical academic education. Occasionally, an officer with a non-technical background, such as business, will be invited to join a team.

“Most of our missions are quite technical in nature, so I mostly pick volunteers with engineering or physical science degrees, but some missions have policy aspects to them, so I like to add a non-techie in those cases,” Mr. Holbrook said. “That mixture has worked out very well.”

Regardless of academic background, the four Airmen — serving on a temporary duty assignment — have no prior knowledge of the designated military space system. They assess its susceptibility to asymmetric threats using common, Web-based investigative methods and other atypical communicative processes. These include social engineering, an unorthodox practice of obtaining information from legitimate sources via the telephone or computer.

“We don’t want officers with inside knowledge on our missions because the whole purpose is to see what an outside group, from anywhere in the world, can discern about our systems,” said George Dietrich. The former Air Force fighter-bomber pilot and operational test director is now a Space CHOP management consultant.

As each session begins, the Space CHOP identifies the rules of engagement to the participants and client. In addition, as a precautionary measure, they coordinate the planned session with the customer’s security organization, the local Air Force office of special investigations detachment, and other applicable protective agencies.

At the midway point of a mission, the Space CHOP simulated terrorist team delivers a status briefing for the customer. Upon mission completion, the customer agency receives a final, formal classified presentation and report, as well as a list of what the team found in open source documentation.

“Space CHOP provides the customer what they want and need,” Mr. Dietrich said. “It also provides young lieutenants with a four-month course on intelligence-based, asymmetric training.”

“By using fresh teams for each mission, we assure our customer we are not ‘mirror imaging,’ a problem that can affect professional intel analysts as they can tend to look at an enemy and assume he will act as we would,” Mr. Withers said. “Our young guys have no preconceived notions, and so have not developed any biases.”

Looking to attract other participating federal government agencies and military services, the program will continue to evolve to meet the rapid technological advances impacting today’s asymmetric threat environment. Nevertheless, the program remains primarily focused on protecting military assets.

“We are growing, but we’re not forgetting where we come from,” said program chief Holbrook, a former Marine enlisted navigator and Air Force space weather officer. “We are the only government organization that does open source, simulated terrorism employing a non-expert team.

“Space CHOP is a genuinely unique organization,” he said. “However, it’s important to note that we do not replace traditional vulnerability analysis — we complement it. When the leadership fuses the two types of analyses together, the result is the best possible insight into enemy capabilities and intentions.”