“Space isn’t Special” – How Huntsville’s defense agencies are shaping national security through advanced technology

single-meta-cal August 6, 2020

How do you host the nation’s premier conference on space and missile defense during a pandemic? This year’s Space and Missile Defense Symposium was done virtually with updates from the nation’s leading subject matter experts on developments in space and missile systems.

A common theme throughout the day was a focus on the changing threat environment and how new technologies are needed to adapt. After concentrating on fighting terrorism for most of the past 20 years, the effort is now on “great power” threats from Russia and China.

“It’s been 30 years since we have had a near-peer nuclear adversary. The Cold War is over, the War on Terrorism is in sustainment mode and now we have the risk of ‘great power’ attack. We are here to deter a “great power” war and strategic attack,” said Decatur, Ala. Native and commander of U.S. Strategic Command Adm. Charles Richard.

According to Richard, the highest level of nuclear posture is deterrence and that is developed by having superior technology that convinces the other side it is not worth acting. It also requires a change in how the U.S. thinks about escalation.

“Escalation is not linear. We have to be prepared that a jump in escalation may be required to win. Strategic concepts were not designed for today. It went from bipolar to multipolar. The nuclear triad gives us flexibility. But we are in a different world. Russia has been upgrading for 20 years. It would be easier to name the systems they are not modernizing. China doubled its Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), tripled its short-range missiles and built air carriers. Soon they will double their nuclear stockpile. They are making advances in space, cyber and hypersonics.”

The Department of Defense has put organizational structure and research dollars behind these emerging threats. The U.S. Space Force—America’s newest service branch—and the U.S. Space Command— the military’s unified combatant command—are getting a lot of attention [see Steve Carell’s latest Netflix series]. Huntsville is currently competing to become headquarters for Space Command while the U.S. Space Force will be headquartered at the Pentagon with the other Services.

Much of this work is happening locally with Redstone Arsenal tenants and area defense contractors. The U.S. Army Futures Command is charged with the Army’s modernization efforts by working with combat capabilities labs, including the Combat Capabilities Development Command Aviation & Missile Center at Redstone Arsenal and the recently-established Army Rapid Capabilities and Critical Technologies Office. In addition, the Missile Defense Agency, U.S. Space and Missile Defense Command, and Program Executive Office for Missiles and Space are all working to address these new technology needs.

Meet the Key Players

Maj. Gen. John E. Shaw
Combined Force Space Component Commander, U.S. Space Command, and Commander, Space Operations Command, U.S. Space Force, Vandenberg Air Force Base, California

There is still a good deal of confusion about the Space Force and the Space Command. After all, Space Force is headed by the Secretary of the Air Force and a dual-hatted Air Force General, who is also in charge of the U.S. Space Command. And you thought you had a busy work schedule.

Maj. Gen. John Shaw oversees what he calls the “merchant marines” of space. He leads more than 17,000 personnel to deliver combat space capabilities.

“Space is not special…it’s like all other domains,” Shaw said, “We can’t be surprised adversaries are looking there. As we’ve seen in other domains, the best way to prevent war is to come from a position of strength…with better technology.”

Shaw says there are challenges ahead including how Space Command will interact with the other service components, but did say there have been strides made in working with various DoD entities and government agencies such as NASA and the private sector. On the technology front, he highlighted the issues of legacy satellite technologies.

“Many of our satellites are like large tankers. They don’t move easily. We need to look at how we design them so that they are not so easy to target.” This was made abundantly clear when a Russian satellite recently came within 100 miles of a U.S. satellite.

LTG Daniel Karbler
Commanding General, U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command

The Army is the No. 1 user of space assets in the military. The U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command provides those assets. Recently, it’s been developing technologies using directed energy for counter unmanned aerial system attacks and better communications systems to track enemy fire.

“We have an important role in the Army’s modernization efforts. Integrated air and missile is going to be key. We need the right sensors and the right shooter. Systems can speak to each other but we need them to finish each other’s sentences,” Karbler said.

Another unique function of USASMDC is to provide the Army’s element of the Strategic Forces Command. SMDC is also supporting the newly-created SPACECOM. “We are a force provider to SPACECOM. Providing space services is our bread and butter,” he said.

Karbler identified some issues with making America competitive, but not necessarily technical. He mentioned the issues of being stovepipe-ed at times and overly bureaucratic. “We had forgotten how to be fast. Now we have taken the governor off.”

LTG L. Neil Thurgood
Director, Hypersonics, Directed Energy, Space and Rapid Acquisition
Army Rapid Capabilities and Critical Technologies Office (RCCTO)

If speed is what wins the day, then the RCCTO led by LTG Neil Thurgood is an Indy Car. The Army Rapid Capabilities Office was created in August 2016 to expedite the delivery of critical combat materiel. In December 2018, its mission was expanded and its name changed to the Army Rapid Capabilities and Critical Technologies Office. The Office is headquartered at Redstone Arsenal, Alabama.

Thurgood’s mission is to take science and technology work and make it into a usable product as quickly as possible. He considers himself a “venture capital firm.” “We are here for a quick infusion of effort and then gone,” he said.

His portfolio includes some of the most exciting technologies the Army is working on.

“We are working with Navy on hypersonics with the hypersonic glide body [a project Dynetics in Huntsville is developing],” he explained. “With directed energy, we are not just looking at lasers but also microwaves. Lasers are sequential in nature. It senses a target, kills a target, and moves to next target. Microwaves are group killers like swarms of drones.”

Vice Admiral Jon Hill
Director, Missile Defense Agency

The Missile Defense Agency (MDA) is a research, development, and acquisition agency within the Department of Defense responsible for the development of nation’s ballistic missile defense system. It’s a system that includes sensors at sea, on land, and in space; missiles capable of destroying an incoming target at all levels of flight, and the communications network to ensure everything works together.

One of the biggest issues MDA is dealing with, according to Hill, is tracking hypersonic weapons, which can go as fast as Mach 5, or over 60 miles per minute. “We have got to be able to sense, detect and get tracking and fire control information down to the shooter.”


MG Robert Rasch, Jr.
Program Executive Officer Missiles and Space

In the very near future, these projects will become part of Army’s portfolio of systems. At that point, the Program Executive Office for Missiles and Space takes over. It provides centralized management for Army Air and Missile Defense and Tactical Missile Programs as well as selected Army Space programs.

Rasch discussed how PEO MS has better aligned itself, going from 8 offices to 6. They are prepared for new programs coming over the next few years in Directed Energy, Long Range Hypersonics Weapons, and High-Powered Microwaves.