The commanding general of the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command wants to talk about the critical work his soldiers do every day. And he wants to clear up any confusion about the roles and responsibilities of his command and the mission of the U.S. Space Force, the military’s newest branch.
In the Space Force, the Guardians look up into the skies, while Space and Missile Defense Command looks to where people live and where wars have been fought for millennia, said Lt. Gen. Daniel Karbler, who has led the Huntsville, Alabama-based Army command since December 2019.
It’s something Karbler has spent quite a bit of time explaining, because while their names make them sound similar, the two entities have overlapping, but differing, missions.
Generations of Experience
Established in 1997, the Space and Missile Defense Command (SMDC) has a legacy dating to the late 1950s, during early efforts for ballistic missile defenses, as the Army worked on ways to counter the missile threat from potential adversaries. The Space Force and its Guardians were established in 2019 to answer the growing threat of competitors in space.
SMDC is a global, round-the-clock operation serving two combatant commands, the U.S. Strategic Command and the U.S. Space Command. To do this, Karbler has operations scattered in places like Japan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, with sensors to spot missile activity. “We’ve become very practiced and very good at our asset management in terms of those sensors,” he said.
“The intersection between Space Command and Strategic Command, with my unit being at the nexus of that integration, works very well,” Karbler said. “As you can imagine, it gets pretty busy when you have competing demands.”
Before Space Command was stood up, the space mission fell under Strategic Command, where Karbler served for three years as the chief of staff working under space expert Air Force Gen. John Hyten. Working alongside Hyten “taught me a lot about space and taught me a lot about treating space as a warfighting domain,” Karbler said.
Karbler’s command also has responsibilities to a third combatant command, the U.S. Northern Command, supplying a ground-based defense brigade that watches for threats against the U.S. homeland and an Alaska-based brigade with interceptors. The interceptors are under Northern Command’s operational control, Karbler said.
Space and Missile Defense Command also plays key roles within the Army, where it is “a full-court press to make sure that Army space is integrated into training at all echelons,” Karbler said. “The way that I look at it, the way I brief it, is that a soldier, officer, civilian or whomever is working in combined arms maneuver has to be as comfortable integrating Army space as they are integrating fires, maneuver mobility, countermobility, intelligence, etc.,” he said. “Being able to provide our unique capabilities to Army missions has got to be part of that.”
While not as old as some branches of the Army, the command’s predecessors were stood up beginning in the 1950s and launched America’s first satellite, Explorer I, in 1958. It was launched using a modified rocket, designated Jupiter-C.
“We are the history of Department of Defense space,” Karbler said. “It is sometimes lost on folks, but the Army was the first to send a rocket into space. The Army launched the first missile into outer space and spacecraft.” He was referring to the 1961 launch of Mercury 3 using a modified Army rocket that lifted Alan Shepard aloft as the first American in space.
Today’s SMDC has about 3,000 soldiers—Regular Army, Army National Guard and U.S. Army Reserve—spread over 22 locations and 10 time zones, Karbler said. There are 900 soldiers forward-stationed or deployed. “We say the sun never sets on the Space and Missile Defense Command,” he said.
For example, there are joint tactical ground station operators in Japan and Korea and in the U.S. European Command and U.S. Central Command areas of operation as part of theater missile warning companies. In early 2020, it was one of these stations that warned 16 missiles had been fired by Iran into an airbase in Iraq where U.S. forces were stationed. “I give a lot of credit to our soldiers for providing that early warning and for preventing any deaths from those 16 missiles that fell into Iraq,” Karbler said.
In addition to missile warning, the command supports DoD communications requirements with wideband satellite communications services provided to U.S. and foreign agencies.
Karbler’s command also has three operational brigades in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The 1st Space Brigade provides offensive and defensive space control planning and support teams. The Army Satellite Operations Brigade provides continuous operations, strategic and tactical communications wideband and narrowband systems. It also has a detachment dedicated to mitigating electromagnetic interference. This brigade is expected to be transferred to the Space Force. Also in Colorado Springs is the 100th Missile Defense Brigade, activated in 2003 to defend against long-range ballistic missiles.
Other locations are widely scattered with various missions. The command is headquartered at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville. The 49th Missile Defense Battalion at Fort Greely, Alaska, is an Alaska Army National Guard unit providing operational control and security for ground-based interceptors. Karbler’s organization also has a research and testing arm working on future missile defense systems, including work on directed energy and hypersonic systems, he said.
The Space and Missile Defense Command works closely with the U.S. Army Futures Command to look at how future formations may look and operate. The Space and Missile Defense Center of Excellence “does all the concepts work,” working with the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command and the Army Staff to determine how space capabilities will be formed, Karbler said.
The challenge here, he said, is “ensuring that the orchestration of the operational side, the research development and technology side and then the concept side, schoolhouse side and the Center of Excellence side, we keep it all together, rolling in the same direction.”
Today’s challenges are different than launching a man into space. “We have adversaries out there from across all the geographic and combatant commands. Making sure we stay ready, especially during our periods of COVID, has been a challenge,” Karbler said. “Thanks to great leadership of leaders at all levels within my geographically dispersed elements, we managed to stay ready 24/7.”
Many of the globally dispersed crews are small, with five to 10 uniformed and civilian members, he said. “They are not robust,” he said. “You can imagine if COVID were to catch in one of these small crews. I always likened it to a spark in a little pile of tinder.”
Things worked out, he said. “We never failed to meet our mission requirements.”
The concept of space as a warfighting domain has been growing for decades. “The recognition of space as a warfighting domain is only getting bigger,” Karbler said.
When Space Command stood up in 2019 as a unified combatant command, it was designated as responsible for U.S. military operations that are 62 miles or more above sea level, solidifying the idea that it is to be focused up while the Army is focused down.
The Army is relevant to a space domain fight, Karbler said, adding that in any combined arms maneuver, the Army has unique capabilities that are critical to success.
This is why he has pushed to incorporate Army space training into “all levels of professional education, whether it is brand-new lieutenants at the Basic Officer Leader Course all the way up to the [U.S. Army] War College as well as general officer education,” Karbler said.
In addition to professional military education, Karbler said it is important that space capabilities are part of the focus at combat training centers to ensure both friendly and adversarial space capabilities are included. “That sometimes can be a challenge,” he said, noting that other agencies are sometimes part of the training.
For some soldiers, the adversary capabilities end up being a “real eye-opener,” Karbler said. “They need experience with it,” noting it is important to know what the U.S. is capable of and what the adversary can do, such as jamming communications and global positioning.
The command also plays a key role in tracking North Korea’s missile launches, something that happens on an irregular basis, like the three missiles—including a presumed intercontinental missile—fired in late May right after President Joe Biden visited Japan and North Korea. “Korea keeps us very busy,” Karbler said, but so have the missiles used in the Russia-Ukraine war and missiles fired by Yemen’s Houthi militants at the United Arab Emirates.
SMDC’s sensors provide space domain awareness, a well-practiced and integrated process that aids the competing demands of missile defense and space, Karbler said.