WASHINGTON — In its new role overseeing the nation’s network of missile-defense sensors, U.S. Space Command plans to make more efficient use of these assets, officials said June 7.

 Gordon White, Space Command’s deputy chief of global sensor management, said the recent realignment of responsibilities approved by President Biden in April is significant because it puts one command in charge of the sensors that track missiles and also threats in outer space.

During a call with reporters, White and Col. Mark Cobos, deputy commander of the Joint Functional Component Command for Integrated Missile Defense, sought to clarify confusion over last week’s announcement that Space Command is taking over new missile defense responsibilities.

Space Command, they stressed, is not getting in the business of responding to missile strikes or shooting them down. That remains the responsibility of regional military commands if an attack happens overseas, or of U.S. Northern Command if the United States were targeted. 

What is changing is the oversight and management of sensors used to detect missile launches and track vehicles in flight. 

‘Convergence of space and missile defense’

Previously U.S. Strategic Command managed the sea-based and ground-based radar systems used for missile defense, and Space Command was in charge of the missile-warning satellites.

Under the new arrangement, Space Command is the overall sensor manager, which allows it to prioritize assets so they can also be used to track space debris and rival nations’ satellites. 

“We’re seeing a convergence between a lot of aspects of the missile defense and space missions,” Cobos said. 

In the coming years and decades, DoD will deploy dozens of sensor satellites in low and medium Earth orbits to track hypersonic missiles, he said. As adversaries advance the technology and develop more sophisticated weapons, the U.S. will need to better integrate its sensor data to characterize these fast-moving vehicles.

“We’re seeing in the operating environment a little bit of a shift. I call it the evolution of warfare,” said Cobos. “U.S. defense systems have caused a proliferation in missile technology that is getting more advanced, more maneuverable.”

White said Space Command will seek “better integration and fuzed data for better characterization of threats. This helps all theaters defend their areas.”

“A lot of the sensors we use for space are the same as missile defense and missile warning. A lot of that is coming together, which creates a unique harmony for the commander of U.S. Space command to be able to oversee the planning for all that,” he said. “This will drive some unity in the way we approach those missions.”

Sensors needed for space domain awareness

The Joint Functional Component Command for Integrated Missile Defense (JFCC IMD), which now reports to Space Command, runs an operations center at Schriever Space Force Base, Colorado. Rather than having to route information through Strategic Command in Omaha, Nebraska, it now sends it directly to Space Command’s joint operations center at Peterson Space Force Base, near Schriever.

“This helps harmonize operations, especially as missiles fly through space, which is Space Command’s area of responsibility,” Cobos said. 

Sensors at sea, on the ground and in space support missile defense, and the theater commands operate them at regional level. But with Space Command in charge, there will be “major efficiencies in how those sensors are used when somebody is not shooting a missile at the U.S.,” Cobos said. “About 99.9 percent of the time they will be doing space domain awareness.”

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...