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Unique brigade part of successful missile defense test

Jul. 4, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
A ground-based interceptor missile launches June 22 from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., as part of a successful joint ballistic-missile defense test, the first of its particular kind since 2008.
A ground-based interceptor missile launches June 22 from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., as part of a successful joint ballistic-missile defense test, the first of its particular kind since 2008. (Michael Peterson/Missile Defense Agency)
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Soldiers with the 100th Missile Defense Brigade man stations in Colorado, California and Alaska. (Courtesy of 100th Missile Defense Brigade)

In one sense, the 100th Missile Defense Brigade is one of the military’s more isolated units — 300 soldiers, mostly members of the National Guard, some of whom are posted in Alaska, all of whom are on watch for ballistic-missile threats they hope never arrive.

In another, it’s a teamwork-oriented model for the future force — highly trained soldiers, active duty and guardsmen, working across service lines and employing all types of technology.

Also, like any good portrait of the future, they have rockets.

All three of these traits combined June 22 over the Pacific Ocean, when the brigade joined multiple military units in a successful test of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense element — the first success since 2008, after three failed efforts. A Navy destroyer and the Sea-Based X-Band radar system tracked the target from its launch in Hawaii, while five members of the Army brigade, stationed at an Air Force base in Colorado, ran the fire-control system, launching an interceptor missile from another Air Force base in California.

The process took six minutes from target launch to interceptor launch, according to a Defense Department news release, and was the first hit for the new interceptor, known as the “second-generation Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle.”

“They replicate as close as they can a real threat that we might see from a country like North Korea,” said Col. Ted Hildreth, commander of the 100th Missile Defense Brigade. “From our director’s perspective, it’s real.”

Homeland security

Hildreth, like most of the unit’s members, serves in the Active Guard and Reserve. Of the soldiers under his command — described on the unit’s website as “300 Soldiers defending 300 Million” — only about 5 percent are on active duty, all assigned to the unit’s headquarters.

It’s a mission many wouldn’t associate with the National Guard, but brigade members see it as a perfect fit.

“In the Army, we seem to do a lot around the world, helping other people. In this particular mission, we’re helping Americans,” said the unit’s operations officer, a major who formerly served on active duty. (A unit spokesman asked that names of operators not be used, citing security concerns.)

“Every day, you can kind of reflect on what you’re doing, and how important it is on potentially a massive scale. ... Every day you come into work, you instantly have a high level of job satisfaction,” the officer said.

Landing the job isn’t easy: Initial training for missile-defense operators can run 14 weeks, followed by seven weeks of GMD-specific training, then another six weeks of gunnery-table certification, according to information provided by the brigade. To pass the last two elements, soldiers need 90 percent scores or better.

“It’s one of the most rigorous, demanding curriculums I’ve been a part of,” said Hildreth, whose 25-plus-year career included a deployment to Afghanistan in 2010, leading a National Guard team providing support to the 82nd Airborne Division. “You really have some outstanding soldiers with technical acumen manning the system. It’s a no-fail mission.”

In addition to the air defense jobs (MOS 14 series), the unit also has billets from the military police specialty — sometimes with the Alaska-based 49th Missile Defense Battalion — as well as support positions. Openings generally come through the National Guard vacancy listings; a recent opening with the 49th for an MP, for example, required soldiers to be eligible to join the Alaska National Guard.

In addition to tests and training, brigade soldiers monitor missile tests held by other nations, a key part of the unit’s mission since it was stood up in 2003.

“We’re a one-of-a-kind unit,” Hildreth said. “There is no sister brigade in GMD.”

Unique teamwork

The 100th is without siblings, but not without teammates. Hildreth said the constant joint operations mirror statements made by Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno about the importance of multiservice missions to the force.

“In terms of his vision of the future, we really are a microcosm of what the Army will look like,” Hildreth said. “We’re joint, more diverse — we already fit that mold. We’re somewhat of a model for what the Army, I think, will look like.”

He pointed to a PowerPoint slide showing the arc of the June test, involving multiple Air Force bases, a ship, a sea-based radar component and satellites — not to mention his brigade.

“It describes the jointness,” he said. “$200 million and thousands of people.”

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