How the ground-based Army defends against threats in the air

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Thirty some years after the end of the Cold War, missiles remain a threat to the United States. And now space, where most crucial military communications occur, has also become a contested domain. For an update on how the military deals with these threats, The Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke with the deputy to the commander...


Best listening experience is on Chrome, Firefox or Safari. Subscribe to Federal Drive’s daily audio interviews on Apple Podcasts or PodcastOne.

Thirty some years after the end of the Cold War, missiles remain a threat to the United States. And now space, where most crucial military communications occur, has also become a contested domain. For an update on how the military deals with these threats, The Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke with the deputy to the commander of the Army Space and Missile Defense Command in his office within Redstone Arsenal at Huntsville, Alabama. Richard De Fatta.  He is a retired army colonel now the senior civilian executive at SMDC.  We started with where the command fits into the military org chart.

Interview transcript:

Richard De Fatta: Space Missile Defense Command is a very unique command; it’s what’s called an army service component command, which supports the major COCOMs; four star level commands. So in our case, we support directly strategic command. Now Space Command, you know, the recently stood up COCOM and there’s always confusion about Army versus Space Force. Space Force is a whole different service. Space Command is a command. And then we have responsibility to NORTHCOM, Northern command, with our missile defense capability. And then finally, the fourth four star that we report to is the chief of staff of the Army. We’re the enterprise integrator for all air and missile defense. Our commander here is the senior air defender in the Army. Air defenses, the counter air, counter UAV, things like that.

Tom Temin: Talk about missiles for a moment. The Army uses missiles to get bad people, but this is missile defense. So tell us more about the scope of what it is that you defend against and how does that all work?

Richard De Fatta: Well, so there’s again, some confusion about missile defense. There’s the small missiles you see in the in the current conflict, we use stingers against aircraft, other small missiles. Our primary role here is ground-based global missile defense. So an ICBM, intercontinental ballistic missile, from a rogue nation like Iran or Iraq, North Korea, we would protect the homeland. So our soldiers here in Space Missile Defense Command, actually man the global ballistic missile defense GMD site up in Alaska. So we provide protection. We like to say 300 soldiers providing protection to 300 million in the United States from from rogue nations of intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Tom Temin: And what does the defense look like? What happens if such a rogue missile should be detected coming to the United States?

Richard De Fatta: So good question. Basically, we do surveillance around the world. You’ve heard of satellites that look at infrared signatures, we have radars all around the world, early warning radars, forward base mode radars that we man here at SMDC. And they would they would be doing surveillance of missile attacks. Those are all brought together, those kinds of feeds. If there was a announcement of an attack or of a missile that potentially could have been attacking the United States. Those feeds would be then brought into NORAD, NORTHCOM, the MDIOC, Missile Defense Agency capability that integrates that, and then we’d be put on alert and be prepared on order to have a counter once we determined it was actually going to target the United States.

Tom Temin: And what is the status in history, let’s say of missile interception. I mean, is that part of this also?

Richard De Fatta: Redstone Arsenal. Of course, we’ve been doing missile defense for as long as we’ve had missile offense, right. So in the early ’40s, we started here, set up all sorts of things that went all the way from nuclear warheads, to now we do very precise hit to kill. So we’re doing you know, bullet on bullet kind of engagements. We’re no longer nuclear warheads in space, it’s really that capability. So we’ve been doing that transformation, that development here at Redstone and other places for for many, many years.

Tom Temin: So that used to be derided, you know, a long time ago as star wars and this kind of thing, but missile interception physically then is something that is a regular capability now?

Richard De Fatta: It is. From the smaller missile, patriot, against an aircraft, against another missile. You know, the Desert Storm, the scud level of targets were intercepted by patriot missiles. We’re just taking scaling that up and take a missile that’s launched from another country comes through space into our area, potentially, in the continental United States. And then we launch a a ground-based interceptor that would then intercept that.

Tom Temin: And this command does that launch or you just give the information to somebody?

Richard De Fatta: We do both. We maintain the radars, some of the radars that do some of that, that early warning. Then we also man the site that actually would be firing the counter missile.

Tom Temin: And as missiles get faster, and as other nations claim they have hyper sonics it’s kind of hard to verify what are the areas of research and development that you need to have here to keep up with emerging threats?

Richard De Fatta: A ballistic missile that we’ve talked about so far, that basically has a very simple trajectory. Goes up into space, comes back down on a trajectory that we can not only measure but we can predict. When you talk about hyper sonics some things change. One is the speed. Some of these hyper sonics, by definition means it travels faster. And so you have to have better ways to cue your systems. They also have some element of maneuverability instead of a very predictable trajectory, they now have some capability to maneuver. And so they’re not as predictable as a ballistic missile. So the technologies we now have to look to in the missile defense agency that’s responsible for developing those technologies, right across our courtyard over here, they look at ways to detect launchers, they look at ways to track missiles, probably our most important new technology is being able to track those super fast hyper sonics. And then finally, look at different means to intercept.

Tom Temin: Sure. And then there’s a couple of different possibilities with hypersonic enemy craft. One is, sometimes it’s just simply the speed of the projectile. There’s no energetics in it. And so it’s going to hit a thing. And that’s the end of it. And whatever it hits, it wrecks, but then there’s the possibility of having a warhead or explosive on the hypersonic. That’s kind of two scenarios.

Richard De Fatta: It could be. I mean, if you talk about just a ground intercept, something going that fast, can have a very significant impact on the ground without having a warhead at all. We don’t want that to happen. And so our systems are designed to intercept over somebody else’s territory or in space, or someplace that would be benign effects on the ground.

Tom Temin: And so what are your priorities looking at the world as it is, and you get orders from what doctrine changes? And at some point, U.S. policy changes? How does that translate to your priorities? And what are you planning on? What do you see ahead in the next, say, two, three years?

Richard De Fatta: We have three elements of that. One is a technology development, a technical center, that really looks at you know, baseline technology developments; science and technology research and development. What’s the next, would directed with a laser be a better way to intercept at the small missile levels or the large missile levels,  the Department of Defense has used airborne lasers in the past and demonstrated capabilities. And we have that center of excellence here that does directed energy work. We also take national priorities and trends all the way down to our commanders’ priorities, and we translate that in the army to a requirement. So we have another whole section here called the Space and Missile Defense Center of Excellence, just like all the other army Centers of Excellence for maneuver, aviation and those kinds of things. And their job primarily is to do what we call capability development. So take the national defense strategy, all the way down through the many levels of requirements and direction and prioritization all the way down to our commander’s priorities. And what pops out the other end is a requirement. In other words, for an army tactical unit on the ground,  what do we need as a capability to fight from a ground war perspective? And so that’s called capability development.  So we generate requirements, we pass those into the rest of the Army, the institutional part of the Army, and then we go after the solutions. The solutions might be technique, technology, it might be techniques and procedures, you know, how do you avoid. You may not have to fire a hardcore missile to have an effect, you may just maneuver differently. Or you may provide a different source of counter to some of those missiles. So we take the the full range from national priorities down to the Army’s priorities and develop requirements, and then go off and build technologies that support those.

Tom Temin: And let’s switch for a minute and talk about space. Because the you have other components of the defense department that operate space assets for communications. So is it fair to describe the Army as a consumer of space services, and therefore you depend on them, but you’re not a provider of them. So tell us more about the space activities as part of Missile Space Defense Command.

Richard De Fatta: The answer is both. Until last Monday, all satellite operations, satellite control, was performed by the Army, the Air Force would fly satellites, and the army would fly the payloads. We had a brigade called the satellite operations brigade. And so if you’re an aircraft carrier going across the ocean, it’s an Army soldier that’s providing you with your wideband bandwidth to be able to have communications. That’s one of the elements that was moved over to Space Command. After you know, several years of discussions and where those go because it’s strategic and joint, and so all those capabilities across all the services were brought together at Space Command in the Space Force. So the Navy had some capability, army had some capability, and then there’s commercial and other satellite operations. But as far as consuming, the Army is absolutely the biggest consumer and requirer for space capabilities. Everything that we do, all of our systems in general are either enabled by space, or something that’s used from space, or require space to be effective. So both. And my last point is really, we also provide some of those services now, and capabilities to the joint force from a land force component.

Tom Temin: Alright, so then let’s get into the structure of this command, what types of people do you have? What are the skills you need, tell us about the human capital component of it.

Richard De Fatta: Okay, again, we kind of divided into three pieces. And I’ll start with the pointy end of the spear. We have operational brigades, we do satellite operations, that’s our first face brigade. We have soldiers, those are all soldiers. We have soldiers from the National Guard, that man our missile defense sites. We had the satellite operation soldiers, and then it’s a military command. So we have a variety of staff officers and other other sorts. Now that’s getting the pointy end of the spear. And that’s really, the purpose for having this command here is to provide them capability. Go to the far end of that, and the technical center that we have here has scientists, you know, PhD, research, world class researchers in the area of directed energy, missile defense, and those folks go everywhere from basic research, you know, what’s the next best laser that we can develop? We’re doing that research here, we develop satellite experiments. The Army doesn’t fly satellites, that’s done by Space Force Space Command. What we do though, is we fly experiments to inform army requirements. So, if I’m a brigade commander, I want to, I want to see over that hill, I need satellite imagery, and I need it right now. I mean, I need to push a button and say, I want to see what’s over that hill. So we would demonstrate that with a science and technology objective, we’d actually fly a satellite that has that capability on it. We take the results of it, inform Army leadership, create a requirement, and then we pass that on to the Space Force, or the Space Development Agency, and they would incorporate that into our future capabilities. So the three pieces that we have here, institutional army folks, research and development, and then we got soldiers that actually performed the pointy end of this of the spear kind of work.

Tom Temin: So maybe summarize for us how this all comes together for battle operations as you envision it.

Richard De Fatta: Okay. Traditionally, Army provided some baseline capability in the space, the space domain, land based. It was all centrally located in one space brigade here at Space Missile Defense Command. Army space is undergoing quite a transformation right now. Whereas we’re taking the majority of our space capabilities and giving it to that brigade commander we talked about earlier. In other words, theater level army space capabilities at the command of the COCOM. So the user commander, the PACOM commander, is able to leverage ground base capabilities. So we’re moving from a central strategic-only capability to a non-centralized tactical capability that lends itself to now the multi-domain operations that you probably have have read about. Space as an independent domain and now providing capabilities for in the planning realm and the execution realm can be kinetic, can be non-kinetic, can be lethal can be non-lethal. A lot of tools in the in the quiver for an operational Army commander.

Tom Temin: Does any of this relate up to the JADC2 DoD effort and the Army part of that?

Richard De Fatta: It does indirectly. I mean, the some of our command and control elements for our missile defense, for example, the C2BMC. That’s the big Missile Defense Command and Control and the Army’s capability, the integrated battle command system, it’s the smaller missile IBCs, those are elements that would be a portion of the Department of Defense’s JADC-squared. So you control missiles  from stinger all the way up to the intercontinental ballistic missiles. Those are elements of what JADC-squared would do as they develop that at the Department of Defense level.

Tom Temin: And by the way, what’s your own history? You were career Army, and now you’re an SESer here. Just tell us a little bit about your own background.

Richard De Fatta: I was in the Army for about 28 years, primarily doing missile defense kind of activities, retired from the army in about 2005. Worked on the civilian sector for about eight or nine years and then came back to Space Missile Defense Command because of my super interest in directed energy, which is really what my degrees and other things were to develop new technologies, which have been around for many years. I could not have not come back to the government or at least tried to come back and do that. And I’ve been here for about the last 13 years and filled virtually positions and all of those elements I described to you. The technical center, the center of excellence and now the deputy to the commanding general.

Tom Temin: Now I have a piece of steel in my studio. That’s about an eighth of an inch thick, and it has a big hole where the metal melted down. But that was a Naval laser. Can the Army match that?

Richard De Fatta: We matched it back in about 1975. That laser shot down a helicopter. I joke about it, but my father was the Army’s directed energy program manager at the time. So I’ve got one of those on my wall also with a bigger hole in it. But yes. And oh, by the way, from a technology standpoint, we all work together on the technology so the same laser that that worked for the Navy, where they are right now, also worked for the Army but now you got to you got to package it differently. You got a ship, you got lots of power yet lots of space, although the Navy will argue they don’t have quite as much, but the Army’s got to put it in a very small vehicle and then move it around the battlefield. And so you could have the exact same laser, but you have different beam control optics, you have different means of moving it around. And finally, that last piece has to go on potentially on an aircraft, so it’s got an even smaller form factor in size.

Tom Temin: My understanding of directed energy is the physics, the science are understood. It’s a matter of form factor and power needs in a small space is the primary challenge at this point?

Richard De Fatta: It is. We’ve gotten the technology to the point, we’re not stopping we’re going to continue to improve it. But the technology now says you can get enough power out of these lasers to have tactical effects. And now you got to package it into small typically in the old days if you wanted twice as much power you had to have twice as much size. And now you can stack components to get additional power out of those things and then again you can package those things in a ship, in a vehicle of some sort or an aircraft depending on where you want to be. It is it’s all about physics. You want to be closer you have a better effects. More power, can you can reach out farther. It’s not linear that scientists will tell you but it’s it’s kind of close.

TomTemin: Rick De Fatta is deputy to the commander of the Army Space and Missile Defense Command.

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