• U.S. Army soldiers in a Joint Tactical Ground Station (JTAGS) at Osan Air Base, Korea, stand ready to provide early warning of missile launches. JTAGS units run by the Army Space and Missile Defense Command (SMDC) defend U.S. forces worldwide.  U.S. Army photo
     U.S. Army soldiers in a Joint Tactical Ground Station (JTAGS) at Osan Air Base, Korea, stand ready to provide early warning of missile launches. JTAGS units run by the Army Space and Missile Defense Command (SMDC) defend U.S. forces worldwide. U.S. Army photo
  • Soldiers launch a Combat Skysat balloon carrying a payload into the upper atmosphere. The Army SMDC is exploring a range of technologies to provide high-altitude communications and surveillance for weeks at a time.  U.S. Army photo
     Soldiers launch a Combat Skysat balloon carrying a payload into the upper atmosphere. The Army SMDC is exploring a range of technologies to provide high-altitude communications and surveillance for weeks at a time. U.S. Army photo

Army Brings Space Capabilities Down to Earth

January 1, 2021
By Robert K. Ackerman
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Warfighters are receiving greater value, but cultural hurdles remain.


The benefits of space are being delivered to the ground-based warfighter in greater degrees as the Army taps the ultimate high ground for cutting-edge capabilities. Operational assets once available primarily to commanders now are reaching down to the individual in the foxhole. Coupled with new technologies, these activities empower warfighters while giving commanders more information and options for decisions.

Yet, amid the growth of orbital assets, drawbacks remain. Fiscal uncertainty lurks throughout the future planning process. Adversaries have increased their efforts to overcome the advantages traditionally held by U.S. forces in space. And, cultural and architectural barriers inhibit the ability of Army space forces to realize their full potential.

“Army space has never been more relevant to the ground commander,” says Lt. Gen. Daniel L. Karbler, USA, commanding general, U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command (SMDC) and commander of the Joint Functional Component Command for Integrated Missile Defense under the U.S. Strategic Command. Gen. Karbler also is the Army’s Air and Missile Defense Enterprise integrator as well as the Army service component commander for the U.S. Space Command. “We have to treat space as a warfighting domain. And, with any warfighting domain, you have threats; you have to operate in it; you have to be able to plan, command and control and execute in it and sustain operations for it.”

The level of capability the SMDC is providing down to the warfighting level is at the forefront of change for the command, Gen. Karbler offers. The command continues to develop space professionals, the FA-40s, and makes sure commanders know how to use them within their formations.

“The threat is an agile threat, and we want to make sure that maneuver commanders on the ground are able to overcome whatever the adversaries throw at us from space,” he declares.

The SMDC’s First Space Brigade has capabilities that address adversaries’ space actions, the general continues. Army space support teams go to Army service component commands and combatant commands and divisions, and those space planners help G-3s and J-3s plan and use Army space capabilities.

“We are acutely aware of what our adversaries are doing in space,” Gen. Karbler declared. “It affects not just the Army, [but also] the Defense Department and, frankly, the American way of life.”

As adversaries continue to contest the use of space, Gen. Karbler points out that they challenge the Army’s ability to “shoot, move and communicate.” The ground force commander in charge of a brigade combat team has nearly 3,000 pieces of equipment that are space-enabled. These range from communications to weapons munitions, he notes, and the Army cannot afford to allow space-enabled systems to fail to perform as needed during deployments and combat. The general notes that the Army is the Defense Department’s largest user of space capabilities at all echelons.

Ultimately, the biggest challenge facing the SMDC may be classification. While the need for classification is undeniable, it prevents effective use of space capabilities. “A lot of our space systems and operations are classified at a level that doesn’t necessarily get to that G-3 action officer or staff action officer or commander at the tactical level so it can be integrated into his or her maneuver scheme,” Gen. Karbler points out. Trying to integrate Army space capabilities with a maneuver commander’s schema can be difficult with some classifications held at a high level. “That’s a real operational challenge that we face,” he says.

He continues that the community recognizes this problem and knows that the SMDC must obtain information at a lower classification level to be able to use space capabilities. “This goes toward the broader issue of recognizing space as a warfighting domain and normalizing space as a warfighting domain,” he declares. “We have the ability to really network and link ourselves together much more quickly if some of the classification fetters could be taken off,” he states.

Another challenge confronting the SMDC is fiscal uncertainty, the general offers. In a budget-constrained environment, the command must manage its resources efficiently for maximum value while maintaining its readiness. The future may hold hard decisions, he suggests.

The SMDC is not assigned but “kind of attached” to the U.S. Space Force, Gen. Karbler says. The Army provided civilian and uniformed expertise to the Space Force staff to help it get established, he adds. But more of the Army’s support to warfighting in space is through the U.S. Space Command. In his role as the service component commander for the Space Command, the general is tasked with ensuring trained and ready forces. This is accomplished through the First Space Brigade and the Satellite Operations Brigade. In conducting operations, they actually work for the Combined Force Space Component Command, Gen. Karbler explains. The Satellite Operations commander runs the Joint Task Force SATCOM, which is responsible for the joint forces that provide satellite communications capabilities. The Space Brigade provides theater early warning and space control to the combatant command.

A year ago, when Iran launched ballistic missiles into Iraq, Army joint tactical ground stations (JTAGS) provided theater early warning to U.S. forces on the ground so they could take cover, Gen. Karbler relates. No one was killed because the personnel in danger were alerted to the threat and were able to shelter safely, he adds.

Gen. Karbler emphasizes that the SMDC includes both operational forces and a schoolhouse. So, readiness has two facets. First, the command must be able to provide institutionally ready forces such as FA-40 space officers who have transferred from a basic branch. These officers might have come from engineering, aviation, air defense or even signal, and they must be trained through the command’s different schools to become a space officer providing expertise to a commander. Gen. Karbler notes that the Army Signal School helps the SMDC by providing soldiers with 25S-1C satellite controllers specialties, and they crew the wideband satellite communication operations centers (WSOCs). The school has done an incredible job training the soldiers who run the WSOCs, he offers.

The second aspect is operational readiness, and this has been complicated by the pandemic. Gen. Karbler credits brigade commanders with being able to maintain certifications, training and crew readiness to carry out missions. For example, JTAGS are small detachments deployed around the world. “We don’t have a lot of bench for them, so they have to stay healthy,” the general says, using a sports analogy. “If COVID were to come into those small crew densities, it would wipe out crews right away.”

The same holds true for the WSOCs, which have small crews and not much backup. Missile defense batteries are teamed with radars and support the SMDC’s homeland missile defense mission along with space domain awareness, and they too have small crews with little margin for personnel flexibility.

Amid the pandemic, the command must continue to train and certify. Gen. Karbler offers that its leaders have been innovative about how they conduct certifications—some remotely, some via sister crews evaluating others.

Part of the Army Futures Command’s AimPoint Force Structure initiative for multidomain operations, the multidomain task force includes intelligence, information, cyber, electronic warfare and space, or I2CEWS, activity. Space plays a big role in I2CEWS capabilities in the multidomain task force, which is at the forefront of Army modernization, the general notes.

The SMDC works with international partners to improve interoperability. It has Australians within the Satellite Operations Brigade, the general says. Again, classification levels stymie efforts to achieve true interoperability, he states. “People do recognize just how much better we’d be if we were able to reduce some of these classification requirements and allow us to open up,” he adds.

The SMDC’s portfolio is not limited to space. It also is exploring high-altitude capabilities for what Gen. Karbler calls “pennies on the satellite.” These not-quite-space capabilities would cover intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and communications missions, and they would be tactically responsive. There would be no need to go through an extended launch sequence, as with satellites. Users could simply release high-altitude balloons that would be controlled from Earth.

The SMDC is tapping industry innovations for advances, the general allows. Google, for example, has explored high-altitude communications. The command has learned how to keep balloons on station for weeks or even months at a time simply by changing their altitude to take advantage of different wind currents. These devices are part of a layered capability approach the command is taking, he says.

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