A man watches a TV screen showing what the North Korean government calls the Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile.

A man watches a TV screen showing what the North Korean government calls the Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile. Ahn Young-joon/AP

Left-of-Launch Missile Defense: ‘You Don’t Want to Have Just One Solution to the Threat’

The 3-star commander of the US Army’s space and missile-defense efforts talks about the changing mix of ways to counter threats.

Anti-missile interceptors remain the cornerstone of U.S. missile defense, but the Trump administration has a growing interest in other techniques — ones that might be more reliable and less expensive.

“It’s like anything you look at when you look at combat operations – you don’t want to have just one solution to the threat,” said Lt. Gen. Jim Dickinson, the double-hatted chief of Army Space & Missile Defense Command and Army Forces Strategic Command.

“You’ve probably heard the conversation about how we’re on the wrong side of the cost curve for missile defense many times. We’re utilizing multi-million-dollar interceptors against very inexpensive missiles and those types of threats,” Dickinson said during a recent visit to Washington, D.C.. “So it’s a balance. It has to be a balance between the end game, if you will, where we’re relying on an interceptor to defeat the threat,” and other approaches.

Lawmakers are pushing boost-phase defenses, which intercept a missile during its ascent, while the executive branch has focused on getting “left of launch” — that is, finding ways to sabotage missile development programs and individual missiles before they lift off. In 2014, then-President Barack Obama ordered cyber and electronic attacks against North Korea’s nuclear missile program that some experts said set the program back several years.

“Left of launch is something we need to continue to pursue and develop, because we need to have a balance,” Dickinson said. “With the reliance on just the mid-course to terminal-phase of a missile engagement, if we only focus on that, then we’re not giving our leadership and our commanders on the ground all the options that we should to defeat that threat.”

One of the few financial moves Congress has been able to agree upon this year is upping funding for missile defense. Four months into fiscal 2018, legislators have yet to pass a full-year budget, but they added $4 billion to December’s short-term spending bill to meet the Pentagon’s requested plus-up for “emergency requirements.”

Also read: Congress Rushes Pentagon $4B for Missile Defense Improvements

At least half went directly to procurement of interceptor systems and missiles, including $884 million for the Army to buy “147 PAC-3 Patriot interceptors, upgrades to Patriot launchers and ATACMS missiles.” The military’s not changing its reliance on the suite of classical interceptor technologies — “The Army PATRIOT force remains the cornerstone of [air and missile defense] protection for our deployed forces, friends, and allies,” Dickinson told lawmakers in testimony submitted to support the 2018 budget request. But the Army and the other services are thinking about — and investing in — new technologies to counter a bellicose North Korea, resurgent peer competitors, and others.

“As I look down the road, we all know that the adversary is rapidly developing technologies in both missile defense and space, and we have to stay ahead of that,” Dickinson said. “That’s really my vision: Making sure we’re meeting the needs of the Army today, and we’re postured for meeting that tomorrow and into the future.”

That also means meeting the Army’s needs in space, another highly technical portfolio of growing importance. The command, headquartered in Redstone Arsenal, Ala., home of the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency, oversees everything space- and missile defense-related, “from research and development to fielding of new equipment to the training of the soldiers that operate that equipment.”

“I would tell you that I think it’s very feasible for us to do that, to grow,” he said. “I think it’s a good problem to have — if it’s a problem.”

The key is ‘agility,’ says Dickinson, who has seen technology evolve from maps scrawled on a Hawk missile scope to the next-gen integrated air and missile defense network now under development.

“I look to see how agile we are in our science and technology, how agile we are in our training and doctrine and schooling and teaching of the soldiers in how to do it, how agile we are in terms of training the broader Army in being prepared to fight in a degraded, congested and denied space environment, and at the bottom line, we’ve got to increase our lethality,” Dickinson said. “How do we do that in an agile, rapid process to stay ahead of the adversary?”

‘Army Space will continue to grow’

In a year of big space news, the most contentious headlines went to a fight over creating a military Space Corps — a separate service housed within the Air Force. The proposal didn’t make it into the final defense authorization bill, but most lawmakers on the Armed Services Committees say it’s only some years before it becomes necessary.

How that situation shakes out will affect the rest of the services. Within the Army alone, Dickinson says, 70 percent of their weapons depend in some way on space.

“We’ve got to make sure the services’ interests are represented in a fair and equitable manner, that we are able to influence and have an agile acquisition process to get to where we need to, to get to the desired capabilities and effects that we want,” he said.

Related: The US Army Knows It’s Vulnerable to Space Attack. Here’s What They Want to Do About It

There’s no interest in competing with the Air Force or stepping in to lead the Pentagon’s space operations. The Army is primarily a consumer of space-based capabilities, and Dickinson has no interest in changing that. But he said they are thinking about how they can supplement what the Air Force manages and what the commercial sector provides. At the end of last year, the department launched Kestrel Eye, a small imaging satellite designed and built by SMDC over the last decade. It’s now flying in low-earth orbit, undergoing testing.

“What we’re looking at is how do you rely upon [the Air Force enterprise] and then build yourself in to where you’re able to mitigate that environment where [adversaries] might be trying to deny you or disrupt you or provide a contested environment,” Dickinson said. “So we look at how you’re rounding out that capability from space.”

Part of that is looking to commercial companies, like SpaceX, which carried Kestrel Eye to the International Space Station for deployment this summer.

“I would tell you just watching what the civilian industrial base is doing in space is helpful to what we’re thinking about, the concepts we’re thinking about in the military,” Dickinson said.