(Master Sgt. Mike Smith, far left, at the 49th Missile Defense Battalion on Fort Greeley, Alaska, with National Guard officials, December 2008. U.S. Army National Guard photo.)
FORT GREELY, Alaska – Alaska Army National Guard warfighters from the 49th Missile Defense Battalion here Friday launched and directed a ground-based interceptor missile that destroyed a target ballistic missile in space, miles above the Pacific Ocean.
The 13th live test of the nation’s ground-based midcourse defense system that is designed to protect the United States from a ballistic missile attack, provided a plethora of data for future system development. It was also hailed as a success by National Guard officials here and Department of Defense officials at the Pentagon.
Guard members here say the system works, and Friday’s test proves it.
“This is an operational system that is guarding America. It’s part of the first line of defense for America, and you have Guardsmen doing that,” said Army Brig. Gen. Randy Banez, Alaska’s assistant adjutant general for space and missile defense.
Army Lt. Gen. Patrick J. O’Reilly, director of the Missile Defense Agency, briefed reporters at the Pentagon the day of the test and was “extremely pleased.”
For the Fire Direction Center at Fort Greely’s missile defense complex 350 miles northeast of Anchorage, the multi-million dollar test came down to five Guardmembers, one of them a sergeant, tracking a ballistic missile target lunched from Kodiak, Alaska. The crew helped assess the threat as they would a real enemy missile and then coordinated the launch of a GBI from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. They then monitored the GBI as it speedily crossed a vast distance to hit the target in space – bullet hitting bullet – off California’s coast.
“It shows that the fire direction center, which is the primary executor of the tactical mission, launches the GBI and negates a threat,” said Army 1st Lt. Ronald Bailey, Guard FDC battle analyst. “This is the first time that’s been done here, and it showed that the overall architecture and the human element of the system works.”
Bailey and two other officers and two non-commissioned officers that make up an FDC crew (a communications operator, sensor operator, weapons system operator, battle analyst and tactical director) said endless training sessions on the Ground-based Midcourse Defense Systems Trainer had prepared them well for the live event.
“We train for many more complicated factors and scenarios,” said Army Maj. Kenneth Weiss, senior tactical director for the crew. “We went through a lot of training over the last few months, and it culminated today with the shot of a live interceptor. We had a successful engagement, proving the system works.” It was his first live test, he said.
In the news, reports said that the nation’s leaders, as well as its allies and enemies, watched Friday’s test closely. More than 400 news stories on the test were filed worldwide, according to Army Lt. Col. Hunt Kerrigan, Alaska Guard spokesman.
“We host reporters and distinguished visitors here from all over the world … including Russian and Israeli media … all of them want to see our mission,” said Kerrigan. “The eyes of the world are on the 49th Missile Defense Battalion.”
Kerrigan explained that the post opens its gates to show the world that the “cutting-edge technology” of missile interception is defensive in nature and under the “capable and skilled hands of National Guard Soldiers.”
One part of the missile shield
There are two FDCs in Ground-based Midcourse Defense including the battalion at Fort Greely and its parent, 100th Missile Defense Brigade in Colorado Springs, Colo. Both centers are commanded by Army National Guard officers who are authorized by their governors and the president to serve simultaneously as federal and state Guardmembers.
The centers built their total force missions side-by-side with defense contractors, Navy and Air Force radar systems specialists, command and control elements, and other components of the evolving, larger missile shield ordered by President George W. Bush in 2002.
As a tactical unit, Fort Greely is the only FDC with ground-based interceptor missiles on-site. Other GBIs are siloed in California. Both are operational systems. The exact number of operational GBIs is classified.
Defense officials say a total of 44 GBIs, the majority of them at Greeley’s 850-acre missile complex, will be in place by 2013. Additional GBIs are planned for Poland.
“The prominence for Greely is the evolution of this system,” said Army Col. Michael Yowell, the Colorado’s 100th MDG commander.
Yowell was one of a number of Guard leaders and contractors who watched Friday’s test.
“The development of the system, its software, as well as its tactics, techniques, and procedures allow the brigade and the battalion to secure and defend America,” he said.
Much of Fort Greely was pulled from its 1995 Base Realignment and Closure fate for GMD, and the Alaska Guard along with dozens of contractors have been here for several years constructing the high-security complex.
“We are on the cutting edge of technology here,” said Bailey, who stepped out of the FDC after the test for an interview. “This is a real mission that is conducted every day by National Guard Soldiers defending the homeland.”
The Guardmembers, many from warm weather states, work here in winter temperatures that dip to -50 F. It’s so cold that the U.S. Army’s Cold Regions Test Center located here distributes test clothing to them.
Today, 200 Soldiers serving as active-duty Guardmembers call Greely home. There are no drill status Soldiers here. Since the battalion is considered a forward deployed unit, none of the Soldiers are deployable overseas.
Nearly two-thirds of the battalion’s Soldiers are military police who protect the missile complex. The remaining Soldiers are the highly trained missile complex crew members as well as support staff.
“It’s probably one of the most unique battalions that you will ever see,” said Army Lt. Col. Steve Carroll, battalion commander. “It’s a challenging mission, but it’s also a rewarding one. There are 200 Guardsmen here that are defending 300 million Americans.”
The battalion recruits nationwide.