WASHINGTON — The U.S. Army has had a role in space for years, from soldiers that operate satellites to roles as astronauts, and the service is reliant on the domain for communications and surveillance. But as the United States expands its mission in space, things are heating up for the typically terrestrial service.
The Army’s Space and Missile Defense Command is the epicenter for the service’s expanding role in space.
Lt. Gen. James Dickinson, the SMDC commander, delivered a speech in early August at the Space and Missile Defense Symposium in Huntsville, Alabama, leading with a hefty dose of the Army’s role in space and how that mission is growing. Typically, the Army is focused on its missile defense mission, and outsiders are rarely aware of the space mission.
That speech was a bellwether of things to come.
“It’s a great day to be an Army space soldier,” Dickinson told Defense News in an interview ahead of the Association of the U.S. Army’s annual conference.
The changes at SMDC are reflective of that. SMDC will be home to the Army service component command for U.S. Space Command. The command is already serving as the Army service component command for U.S. Strategic Command and will follow similar organizational and reporting guidelines with Space Command, Dickinson said.
“Really, it was a very natural fit” for the command, he said. “It’s just as simple as looking at our name, that makes sense.”
The Army is “the largest user of space and has the greatest number of space-enabled systems among the services,” Dickinson said. “We boil it down into soldiers have to see, shoot, move and communicate using satellites in space … that is our path to the future. We’ll continue with that as we bring in new systems.”
And as the Army looks to modernize, its reliance on space will be even greater in order for systems like long-range precision fires and a robust, reliant and resilient network to function effectively.
SMDC doesn’t plan to add personnel when the Army service component command for U.S. Space Command is stood up.
“We’ve done our due diligence and planning," Dickinson said. "As we looked at it, we didn’t see a need for growth in the organization right now.
“We’ll see what happens in the future as Space Command stands up and it becomes more formal and they reach their full operational capability. There might be something where we might have to add a few folks, but as we look at it today, it’s a pretty steady state.”
The command has also established a Space and Missile Defense Center of Excellence, mirroring other centers of excellence at commands such as the Fires or Maneuver centers of excellence.
“We feel it’s time that we formalize our educational process or, really, our institutional processes,” Dickinson said, “so standing up a center of excellence for space and missile defense, formerly the Future Warfare Center within this command, that name more accurately describes what they provide to the U.S. Army.”
The center will be responsible for developing doctrine and organizational training materials and will have leadership, education, personnel and facility solutions, he said.
“Standing that up gives us that synergy that we need to put resources and expertise in order to do that today and in the future,” Dickinson said.
The command already had the pieces and elements of what is needed for a center of excellence as part of the Future Warfare Center, but “this is taking all those and organizing them into that model that represents the center of excellence, “ he added, “and maturing those elements.”
A new brigade
As part of an internal look at the command to determine how it can be better organized to address the Army’s role in space, Dickinson decided to take the 53rd Signal Battalion and the personnel from his planning staff, who worked on satellite communications efforts at the command, to build the first U.S. Army satellite operations brigade.
The brigade is commanded by a colonel, and it has moved satellite-communications responsibilities from U.S. Strategic Command to Space Command. “So now I’m able to provide U.S. Space Command a single commander with a unit that is able to do that mission for the United States."
The brigade addresses how the command manages the satellite communications enterprise, according to Dickinson.
The Army is focused on space because there’s nothing that the domain doesn’t touch in terms of capabilities the service is pursuing in its modernization efforts. Army Futures Command’s Position, Navigation and Timing Cross-Functional Team is focused on developing technology within that realm, some of which has spun out of the SMDC’s technology center.
The goal is to “bring space capabilities to the soldier on the ground,” Dickinson said.
“How do we continue today and into the future to provide space capabilities in a timely manner, whether it’s communications, whether it’s intelligence or whether it’s assured positioning information that’s so critical to what we do on the battlefield today?” he added.
The SMDC has spearheaded several small satellite programs in recent years, including Kestrel Eye. In 2017, the micro-satellite demonstrator hitched a ride aboard a SpaceX Dragon craft on a cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station, where it spent the good part of a year in tests on the utility of micro-satellites in low-Earth orbit, providing images to war fighters on the ground at the tactical level during critical operations.
“The success of that has really informed a lot of the technologies that we’re pursuing today, the small satellites that are in either a [low-Earth orbit] or [medium-Earth orbit] that can provide real-time-type information in an environment where we could have adversaries, and we will likely have adversaries,” Dickinson said. “So how do we make sure that we are able to provide that information even in a degraded environment? So that type of LEO or MEO small satellite technology into a kind of mesh network of satellites that provide redundancy and resiliency is what is key, absolutely key to what we’re doing today and tomorrow in terms of ground combat operations.”
The command is looking for potential follow-on efforts to the Kestrel Eye proof-of-concept program, Dickinson said. “It was not as capable as we would want in the future in terms of resolution and that type of thing. So things that we’re looking at in the future are low-cost ones that are readily replaceable … and ones that are able to communicate to some of the common ground networks that we have so we are able to push that information around on the battlefield very quickly.”
The Army is also thinking about a tiered and layered approach to space capability, similar to missile defense, Dickinson added. So in addition to LEO or MEO constellations, the command wants to build more capability at a high altitude, but not quite in space. The idea is to deploy something similar to a weather balloon to provide a resilient and redundant layer that is affordable and doesn’t require space launch. “And it’s a capability that can be tailored” with various payloads, “that bolster the LEO and MEO constellations,” he explained.
While Dickinson has led many changes within SMDC related to both space and missile defense, he’s headed to Colorado Springs, Colorado, in the near future to become the first deputy commander of the new U.S. Space Command. Defense News first reported his new job in August.
It has yet to be announced where the command’s permanent headquarters will be, but Colorado will at least be its temporary home.
Jen Judson is an award-winning journalist covering land warfare for Defense News. She has also worked for Politico and Inside Defense. She holds a Master of Science in journalism from Boston University and a Bachelor of Arts from Kenyon College.