Alaska Guard Troops Conduct Vital Missile Defense Mission
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
FORT GREELY, Alaska, Dec. 20, 2006 Just a few years ago, this snow-swept central Alaskan post lay dormant, closed through the Base Realignment and Closure process. But today it’s up and running again at full speed, serving as the epicenter of the United States’ Ground-Based Midcourse Defense program.
Spc. Juan Coronel, left, and Sgt. Michael Picirrillo, members of the Alaska Army National Guard’s 49th Missile Defense Battalion, patrol the perimeter of the Missile Defense Complex at Fort Greely, Alaska. Picirrillo came to the job because he “wanted to be on the cutting edge.” Defense Dept. photo by William D. Moss
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Eleven ground-based interceptor missiles buried in underground silos here represent a key part of a multi-layered defense system designed to protect the United States from a ballistic missile attack. These interceptors, and two more at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., would destroy incoming missiles at the “midcourse phase,” outside the earth’s atmosphere.
In the event of an attack, members of the Alaska Army National Guard’s 49th Missile Defense Battalion based here would use sophisticated surveillance and radar systems to track the missile through its initial boost phase, explained Maj. Joe Miley, the unit’s operations officer. If the missile reached the midcourse phase, the Alaska Guardsmen would await the order to engage it.
On order, they would fire an interceptor at the incoming missile. The force of the collision --the equivalent of two refrigerators slamming into each other at 15,000 mph -- would destroy the target before it reentered the atmosphere, Miley said.
Miley noted that the National Guard is perfectly suited to perform such an important mission.
“The National Guard has traditionally done homeland defense,” he said, citing National Guard history dating back 370 years to the Minutemen in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. “And this is the epitome of homeland defense.”
Here at what Miley called the “strategic sweet spot” for missile defense, almost 200 Alaska Guardsmen who came from around the country to serve in the 49th Missile Defense Battalion take that calling pretty seriously.
The unit is a cross-section of America, at one time representing 46 states and territories, and all its members applied for three-year, Active Guard and Reserve assignments with the program, Miley explained.
Getting accepted into the program is tough, but passing the extensive training required is even tougher, Miley said. Applicants go through nine to 14 weeks of air defense training at Fort Bliss, Texas; a nine-week Ground Missile Defense operator course in Colorado Springs, Colo., then four more weeks of unit training in Colorado Springs before taking a certification test.
“We hire the best and put them through a rigorous training program,” Miley said. To pass the GMD operator course, for example, students have to score 90 percent or better.
“You have to be an A student or you can’t do GMD,” Miley said. “The way we conduct our training, you basically have to get everything right to progress to the next level, so there’s no room for error. We have very high standards.”
That’s a good thing, he said, in light of the responsibility they shoulder every day. Whether they’re providing security at the 800-acre missile defense complex here or manning fire direction center in what Miley called “the tank turret of missile defense,” they’re on the front lines of homeland defense.
Regular exercises keep troops here at the top of their game.
“They say you fight as you train, and we train extensively to make sure we’re on our toes,” said Sgt. Seth Paul, a former Illinois Guardsmen who joined the Alaska Guard here two years ago.
The Guardsmen just wrapped up exercise Vigilant Shield, with scenarios that called on them to respond. “Training exercises are successful because you’re up all the time, running missions, but at the same time, they’re reassuring,” Paul said. “We do things almost ad nauseum, but the bottom line is that you can never be too prepared.”
That message got reinforced this summer when North Korea announced plans to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile.
“We were on high alert, and we were ready for it,” Miley said. “All the crews had done thousands of hours of simulations, on top of their training, and they were ready to act if it had turned out to be a threat.”
Sgt. Anthony Montoya, a communications operator in the fire direction center that received initial confirmation of the North Korean test, said he and his unit were ready to respond.
“I’m ready to do my mission,” he said. “I feel confident in my training, in the system, the crew, and that everyone will make the right decision and do what they’re supposed to do.”
Montoya, formerly from the New Mexico Guard, said he jumped at the chance to join the 49th Missile Defense Battalion and get involved in what he called “the next step up for air defense.”
“It’s great to be part of such technology and to serve your country in such a different kind of way,” he said. “This isn’t a job; it’s a mission.”
Paul agreed that the opportunity to work with cutting-edge technology also attracted him to the job. “We have systems here that they don’t have anywhere else,” he said. “It’s a good learning experience, and we’re doing something no one else does.”
And they’re doing it in conditions not found anywhere else in the U.S. military. Winter weather here in the shadow of the magestic Alaska Range can be brutal, with temperatures dipping to 60 degrees below zero and winds howling at more than 60 mph. The troops here just got issued the Army’s new Extended Cold Weather System and call it a godsend in keeping them warm and dry during foot patrols and range operations.
Even when the weather eases up, the troops here face interesting workday challenges. Roaming foxes or moose frequently set off heat-detection sensors along the complex’s fence line perimeter. Fort Greely’s remote location, 100 miles southeast of Fairbanks, makes tiny Delta Junction, population 840, the closest “big city” short of a two-hour drive.
And Fort Greely itself, mothballed in 2002, is still working to catch up with the 49th Missile Defense Battalion’s quality-of-life needs. The post exchange and commissary have expanded, and a new European-inspired coffee bar has become a popular gathering place for troops seeking refuge from the cold. “This place has made an amazing progression since 2003,” Miley said. “It has truly come along.”
Meanwhile, the 49th Missile Defense Battalion’s mission here also continues to grow, incorporating new technology as it’s developed.
“We have a system capability, and we’re enhancing it, explained Brig. Gen. Tom Katkus, the Alaska Guard’s assistant adjutant general for missile defense. “It’s the idea of flying the plane and building it at the same time.”
Troops here say it’s exciting to be a part of that growth, and the sky-high retention rates reflect their enthusiasm. Unlike typical active-Army units, where troops frequently move on to new assignments, soldiers here can reapply for their positions and even build a career, Katkus said.
This brings stability to the mission, minimizing disruption while building cohesive, experienced crews accustomed to working together. “They become a real team, committed to working together to carry out their mission,” Katkus said.
Paul called the opportunity to conduct an important, real-world mission every day the most gratifying part of the job. “Our homeland is one of the most important things to us, because our families are here,” he said. “By being here, I can contribute to preventing something that could be catastrophic in nature. What I’m doing here could be helping other people.
“What the military does around the world is important,” Paul concluded. “But it’s especially important right here, in our homeland. That’s why we want to be here.”