COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – The Ground-based Midcourse Defense element of the Ballistic Missile Defense System is the United States anti-ballistic missile safeguard, designed to intercept incoming enemy warheads in space and has been operational since 2004.
In May 2017 it achieved perhaps its greatest success to date in its toughest test yet.
Flight Test Ground-based Interceptor-15 showcased the system’s capabilities, as it was the first successful interception of a simulated intercontinental ballistic missile target by a ground-based interceptor launched by the GMD system.
The test, which took place May 30, was the culmination of complex integrated planning by a number of military agencies and materiel developers. At its heart were the warfighters – five 100th Missile Defense Brigade Soldiers operating the system inside a secure “node” at Schriever Air Force Base.
The 100th Missile Defense Brigade, a multi-component brigade consisting of active-component Army and National Guard Soldiers in Colorado, California and Alaska, is the only military unit with a 24/7/365 mission of defending the homeland from ICBM attacks with ground-based interceptors.
Ground-based interceptors – solid-fuel, three-stage rockets tipped with a kinetic Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle – are emplaced at Fort Greely, Alaska, and Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.
Once a GBI is launched, it boosts the kill vehicle outside of the earth’s atmosphere to hit and destroy an enemy ICBM in the midcourse of its flight. This highly-technical and precise process has often been compared to hitting a bullet with another bullet.
Redundant crews of five Soldiers with the 100th Missile Defense Brigade at Schriever and the 49th Missile Defense Battalion at Fort Greely, Alaska, control the system and the unofficial motto of the 100th Missile Defense Brigade is “The 300 (Soldiers) protecting 300 million (Americans).”
The five crew members who executed the FTG-15 launch shared their perspective. Their last names have been withheld for security purposes.
“We got it!” Staff Sgt. Daniel, readiness officer, said that while his initial reaction was that of excitement once the crew realized that they had authored the successful intercept, their overall response was subdued. “For us, it was just another day at the office,” said Daniel, who has served in multiple roles within the air defense artillery enterprise. “Being in a Patriot unit, you get live fire opportunities. Being a Joint Tactical Ground Station operator, you’re constantly seeing missiles launched and intercepts from other countries.
“This is what I’m trained to do, this is my job. My job is to defend the homeland. I’ve had 100 percent confidence in the (GMD) system since even before coming out here.”
1st Lt. Alberto, current operations officer, has spent the entirety of his post-West Point Army career with the 100th Missile Defense Brigade and named his role in FTG-15 as the highlight of his career, thus far.
“I feel extremely fortunate to be part of this unit, to be part of that crew,” Alberto said. “It was a quiet confirmation of what we already knew to be true. The system works, our operators are trained and proficient. It was exciting. We were proud of ourselves, the crew, the system and the developers.
“The reason that it’s exciting is not because we doubted it would work. The reason it’s exciting is because it’s not something that happens every day. It was a unique opportunity to test the system in a real way that validated what we knew it was going to do.”
Staff Sgt. John, future operations officer, served as a combat engineer for five years, including multiple deployments, and also served on the Patriot system. He said when he was assigned to the 100th Missile Defense Brigade, neither he nor his air defense artillery brethren had heard of the unit.
“When I got orders to this unit, nobody knew what it was,” John said. “I got here and in-processed at Fort Carson. I had to ask around for about a week before I found out where this unit was and what it did.”
John echoed the sentiments of Alberto, and said that the test – coupled with increased ICBM testing by North Korea – has helped to boost awareness of the GMD mission and the 100th Missile Defense Brigade.
“This is the best version of the system ever in place to meet the current threats,” Maj. Jeremy, deputy director, said. “We’re always upgrading not only the software and hardware, but also the tactics.”
Jeremy, a former Paladin cannon crewmember, first joined the 100th Missile Defense Brigade in 2006 at Fort Greely as part of the 49th Missile Defense Battalion.
“It’s been very rewarding to see how the system and the organization has changed,” Jeremy said.
The total number of emplaced ground-based interceptors increased to 44 in 2017, due in part to the success of FTG-15, he said. “We’ve gone from a limited number of GBIs at the onset of the program to now having 44. That was a big thing about FTG-15 – to validate that the interceptors could destroy a target. Because of the success of that intercept, we went from 36 to 44 this year.”
Lt. Col. Jeffrey, executive officer of the 100th Missile Defense Brigade, is an Army veteran of 24 years, most of which he has spent as an air defense artillery officer. On May 30 he was the director of the crew during the launch.
The Missile Defense Element conducts the operational piece of the GMD mission for U.S. Northern Command. The MDE crew director has direct communication with higher headquarters and is entirely responsible for the actions of the crew.
While that may seem like a heavy responsibility, Jeffrey said it’s a part of the job.
“It’s expected,” Jeffrey said. “It’s something I can handle. It’s something I feel comfortable with. With the amount of training and preparation that we do, we build that faith and confidence in each other and build that relationship with (higher headquarters).
“We know how to do it. Based on the crew and our training, I have a lot of faith in the system.”