Jordan Vinson, for the U.S. Army Garrison-Kwajalein Atoll’s Kwajalein Hourglass
The annual Space and Missile Defense Symposium took place last week in Huntsville, Alabama, hosting thousands of service members and professionals working in the fields of space, missile defense and cybersecurity.
Held Aug. 7-9 at the Von Braun Center in “Rocket City,” the conference featured speeches by leaders within the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command, the Missile Defense Agency and U.S. Strategic Command. Panel discussions, scholarly research presentations and technology exhibits by defense contractor companies and select foreign military units were also part of the three-day event.
Lt. Gen. James Dickinson, commanding general of U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command/Army Forces Strategic Command, addressed the symposium Aug. 7, commending the globe-spanning active duty and civilian workforce that make the SMDC mission possible.
Via a live video link at the conference center, the general did a question-and-answer session with 12 members of SMDC, each in a different geographic location, from Kuwait to Kwajalein. Along with presentations of short videos recorded with these personnel on site at the featured far-flung SMDC posts, Dickinson and his team described how individuals and their skillsets contribute to the force and how SMDC accomplishes its broad range of space and global missile defense missions.
One of the videos Dickinson called up for symposium attendees featured SMDC Space Officer Capt. Wojciech Stachura. At a sunny, ocean-side location on Roi-Namur, Stachura explained the importance of SMDC’s Reagan Test Site to American missile defense and space operations.
“Today I am here at the Kwajalein Atoll, home of the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site, also known as RTS,” Stachura said in the video. “RTS is operated by Army personnel, government civilians, technical support contractors and scientists from MIT Lincoln Laboratory. We have over 40 years of experience supporting missile testing and space operations. RTS conducts continuous operations in support of the U.S. Strategic Command, U.S. Air Force space programs and the National Aeronautics and Space Administrations, as well as other government and DOD organizations.
“Operations on Kwajalein Atoll offer many advantages,” the space officer told the crowd. “The austere location helps minimize the inherent risk and safety concerns involved in launch operations. And its proximity to the equator and vast open areas make it very efficient at conducting rocket launches to a wide range of orbits. The Reagan Test Site is, and will continue to be, a significant asset for the U.S. Army.”
While Dickinson was one of the key speakers at the symposium, he shared the stage with plenty of other high-profile Pentagon leaders in the space and missile defense community.
In an Aug. 7 speech at the symposium, Air Force Gen. John Hyten, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, highlighted the importance of vigorous investment in space-based sensors to counter accelerating offensive threats from China and Russia.
“You can’t call them our friends if they’re making weapons that can destroy the United States of America,” he told the crowd.
Radars like Cobra Dane on Shemya Island in Alaska, ALTAIR on Roi-Namur and Joint Tactical Ground Station sites in Japan, Germany and elsewhere are critical to the nation’s new foreign missile and rocket launch duties. But Hyten said ground-based radars’ line-of-sight limitations could be overstepped with a globe-spanning constellation of dependable yet affordable sensors that are parked in low earth and dedicated to watching for and tracking hostile launches from boost to impact.
“There is not enough islands in the world to build radars on to see all the threats to be able to characterize the threats,” said Hyten. “You just can’t get there from here, so the only place to go to do that is a place where the U.S. is actually strongest and technology is there to do it, and that’s in space. We have to move into space.”
The point, the symposium speakers explained, is to improve the lethality of American missile defense systems like the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense in the U.S. and systems abroad in theater like deployed Terminal High Altitude Aerial Defense and Patriot batteries, as well as sea-based Aegis systems on missile destroyers and Aegis Ashore sites in Romania, Poland and—in the future—Japan.
Without the necessary sensor infrastructure online, the mission of missile defense would be entirely different, Hyten said. It was a point he hammered on, saying, STRATCOM needs “sensors first, shooters second, capacity third. … If you don’t have the sensors, then the other two really don’t matter.”
At a time of widely reported Chinese and Russian advances in non-ballistic hypersonic weaponry development, a constellation of enhanced sensors designed to detect and track launches early in flight could significantly aid America’s defense against these superfast vehicles, according to some analysts in the missile defense community.
“The most important thing to do in the missile defense business is making sure you can see and characterize the threat,” Hyten told the Symposium crowd. “If you can’t see and characterize the threat, I don’t care what kind of shooter you have. There is nothing you can do about it. So the most important thing is as you look at all the threats that are coming together, hypersonics, etc.—is that we have to be able to see that threat.”
A duo of missile tracking satellites collectively known as the Space Tracking and Surveillance System was put into orbit in 2009 and is still active, but the system is used primarily as missile test launch assets. Another Air Force multi-satellite network, the Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS), is now emplaced in orbit and can currently detect and track launches.
But, according to Michael Griffin, the undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, the existing capabilities are by no means future proof.
They are, “exquisitely capable, very expensive, very vulnerable systems that were designed and deployed in an era where we really didn’t have any space adversaries,” Griffin told the symposium crowd.
The timeline to build, launch and validate a cheaper, more advanced and hardier system will depend on collaboration between the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the MDA, the release of the government’s anticipated Missile Defense Review and, of course, congressional approval.
Also part of the symposium’s three days of events were discussions on ways to improve sharing missile defense intelligence with U.S. allies; renewed Congressional effort to authorize funding for development of a space-based interceptor system capable of striking down missiles around the world in their boost phase; and what the proposed Space Force might look like.
Hyten had this to say about the Space Force proposition.
“You’ve seen the Congress of the United States pass a law that says we have to go look at developing a Space Corps inside the United States Air Force to figure out how to do that,” said Hyten. “And we have reports to Congress that are due back this month, talking about that. You see Congress talking about standing up a sub-unified command for space now. You see the president of the United States calling for a Space Force. …
“If you take one step back and you look at all the things leading up to that, they all say the following: We have a threat in space; space is a warfighting domain; we have to treat it like a warfighting domain. That’s it, and that’s exactly what we’re doing. So as we do all this, we’re going to be in a much better position as a nation.”