HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — Gen. James Dickinson, the first commander of U.S. Space Command, has focused on putting meat on the bones of the new organization since its inception a few years ago.
The commander said he’s been steering talented service members across the armed forces into leadership ranks and is growing the command’s strength to reach full operational capability. But there’s still much to be worked out when it comes to how the command will support the other services and vice versa; how it will work with allies and partners; and the ultimate location of its headquarters.
Defense News spoke with Dickinson in an exclusive interview at the Space and Missile Defense Command Symposium in August.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
There are ongoing reviews of the Space Command basing decision. How is that affecting the command’s effort to reach initial operational capacity?
The basing decision you saw — it’s not the final decision. The decision for Huntsville, Alabama, was decided by Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett, from the previous administration. It’s a provisional decision, and as in all basing actions, it’s pending the environmental assessment of the six preferred locations that came out of that study. At the same time, the Department of Defense inspector general has been asked to do an evaluation of the basing [decision-making] process [used by] the Department of the Air Force, and then the Government Accountability Office is doing its own independent review. Those are two ongoing things that are happening right now. At this point, it hasn’t had an impact.
When do you expect those reviews to wrap up?
I think they give them a couple of years to do the reviews. That’s the environmental [assessments]. It’s part of every basing. So no matter how small the organization is, it always requires a basing decision, and that basing decision depends upon an environmental assessment.
If Congress fulfills your request for $67 million to achieve full operational capability, what is the timeline for that? Beyond funding, what are the remaining challenges to achieving full operational capability?
We’re about 600 strong now [out of 1,400]. I’ve got a lot of talent; I don’t have what I call a lot of capacity. So in other words, I’m able to do the mission set now, but it’s difficult when I don’t have my full complement of people, both civilian as well as active-duty military, Reserve component folks as well, to build out the capacity to do all of those functions.
It really boils down to numbers of people, numbers of the right kind of people and their skill sets to be able to do that. We have an approved manning document that addresses those specific types of skills and ranks to be able to do that.
What technology do you need right now that you don’t have? Are people trained for the right fields and in the right place? What are the gaps?
We have a responsibility to do space domain awareness. “Space domain awareness” being looking up or looking down — if you’re from a satellite, you’re looking down or to your sides — or looking up from terrestrial-based capabilities, what is happening in the space domain? That is a very complicated, complex capability or mission set to do. And it’s very important because — just like in the other domains, whether it’s air, land, sea domain — you have to be able to discern what’s happening in that domain so that you can make decisions on a timely or time-relevant basis.
You can see the activities from our competitors, the Chinese and the Russians in particular. If I had to hang my hat on one thing that the command has done over the last almost two years, it is our ability to watch and report on Russian activities in the space domain. And some of those could be characterized as provocative. If you go back and you look at what we had with the launch of some of their anti-satellite capabilities over the last couple years, we’ve been able to get out and publicly message about that. For the command, that is like: “Hey, what’s one of the most visible things that your command has done to show the American citizens that it was worth their money and time to stand up a U.S. Space Command?” That is it. So our ability to understand what’s happening in the space domain and hold our competitors responsible for those activities is very important.
The context behind what we’re seeing in the space domain is very important. And we’re able to do that. But we need to get better at it. We have capabilities now, but we absolutely need to improve our ability to see in the space domain.
There are allied and partner nations that have created their own versions of a space force or space command. Have you seen the relationship between U.S. Space Command and those nations growing or deepening as a result?
Just like in all the other domains, our ability to work with our partners and allies around the world is absolutely critical to the space domain, and we have had a lot of great engagements. I just went to Indo-Pacific [Command’s and European Command’s area of responsibility] in the last 90 days. I went to Japan, I went to Korea, I went to the United Kingdom, France and Germany, and all of them are very eager and excited to be part of the space enterprise and standing up their space commands. It’s phenomenal. They look similar to what [we] look like, and our relationship is very good. We’ve been building relationships there for years, but their formal establishment of their commands is a major milestone and, quite frankly, is clearly a deterrent signal to our competitors, both Russia and China, that we are, as we have done in other domains, coming together in space operations.
We’re building [allied partner] capacity in the headquarters itself. For years we’ve had a fairly large footprint out at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. That’s one of my subordinate commands that has a large allied and partner presence that has existed for years. But now we’re also standing that up within the combatant command headquarters.
How do you envision your exercise program growing with allies and partners?
We’re already doing that. We participate in the global series that [U.S. Strategic Command] has, we participate in the INDOPACOM exercises. We just came off of Talisman Sabre, we did Pacific Sentry with INDOPACOM. So we’re participating in those, and our allies and partners participate with us as well.
We are also standing up our own exercise program within the combatant command. And so we’re just two years into it and we have future plans to have our own exercise program twice a year where we are able to shape those exercises to get at the training objectives we need, not only with our partners and allies but some of our other partners that are within the headquarters.
U.S. Space Command recently used a rapid rocket launch as part of its Amalgam Dart exercise. How are the emerging rapid-launch possibilities changing the way you think about defending existing space capabilities?
Our ability to be able to respond from a rapid launch capability is important to how we look at our total capabilities portfolio. So to be able to, in an either rapid or timely manner, add to our capabilities on orbit is very important. It’s an area that we’re looking at closely.
During your nomination hearing, you said over-classification made things more difficult when you were commanding U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command, and you expressed support for reviewing classification of space-related systems and data. What progress have you made in the last year?
We’re making progress. I have two functions now — supporting and supported — so when I’m supporting another combatant commander, [it comes down to] my ability to provide capabilities and effects that they need. If it’s over-classified or super classified, the odds of them actively employing them or understanding how to employ them is not what it should be. So as we look to our near-peer competitors in the future and our ability to be able to act in a relevant timeline, our decision cycle is moving at the speed of need. So over-classification in general will limit that. We have to get better at that.
Step one: I think we have people that recognize the fact that we have over-classification. The hard part to that is getting it to where we can actually talk about the effects and how they support a combatant commander around the world.
What are your goals for the command as you enter your third year?
I’m proud of the command. We’ve come a long way in a very short period of time, but there’s a lot of work ahead of us. We’re on a good glide path. On [July 7th], [the defense secretary] published a memo that directed me to start looking at tenets of responsible behavior, and there are five tenets in there. The command has taken that and very aggressively started work for it. These are the tenets of responsible behavior in space for the Department of Defense. So within Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s authorities, he’s asked me to look at that to start putting meat on the bone, if you will, on those five tenets in terms of defining them better and then how would we implement it.
Those tenets will form the basis for how they’ll go forward to the whole of government in terms of what we think as the Department of Defense. And equally as important, that’s how the Department of Defense will operate in terms of the space domain, so that is a very big issue because of the rapidly proliferating space domain — not only militarily but commercial and civil, what is considered good or bad or irresponsible behavior in the space domain. It’s absolutely critical. We’ve got to come to a resolution on that here very shortly.
Jen Judson is the land warfare reporter for Defense News. She has covered defense in the Washington area for 10 years. She was previously a reporter at Politico and Inside Defense. She won the National Press Club's best analytical reporting award in 2014 and was named the Defense Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2018.