August 24th, 2007 13:07 EST
Alaska, Front Line of U.S. Missile Defense
While most Americans were celebrating Independence Day in 2006, Army Maj. Joe Miley was at his post in the remote interior of Alaska, staring at blips on a computer screen reminiscent of a 1980s video game.
But this was no game. Miley was in the "tank turret" of U.S. missile defense, scrutinizing 21st-century space-surveillance technology and monitoring a North Korean long-range ballistic missile test.
"It was quite a sense of awe. We had spent thousands of hours on the system, doing simulations, training for such an event and (then) actually watching the system and waiting for the sensors to pick up and see if we`d be directed to engage the missile," Miley said. "It felt like this was what we had prepared for, and we were ready."
The missile failed to become even a remote threat as it toppled within in a minute of launch into the Sea of Japan. Had it assumed a threatening course and reached an altitude capable of propelling it to U.S. soil, Miley and a handful of Alaska Army National Guardsmen stood ready, upon direction, to smash it into pieces mid-course.
"There was absolute confidence among the crew members. We had complete confidence that there would have been heroes that day," Miley said.
Miley is the executive officer of 49th Missile Defense Battalion, a ground-based midcourse defense unit. Stationed in this remote post, about 100 miles southeast of Fairbanks, he and about 200 other Alaska Army National Guardsmen serve as the front line of U.S. missile defense.
Just outside of Delta Junction -- home to about 1,000 local citizens, five restaurants in the summer, and only one in the winter -- Fort Greely is host to an 800-acre, ground-based missile interceptor site. About 250 military members call the post home, along with a small contingent of contractors and family members.
The former cold-weather combat training post had all but shut down until President George H.W. Bush directed in 1992 that the Defense Department begin fielding limited missile defense capabilities, with the intent to continue to expand on initial capabilities.
The department`s Missile Defense Agency deemed Fort Greely appropriate because of its strategic location within intercepting distance of missiles launched either from North Korea or Iran. A low water table meant no concrete-like frozen ground, so the base was well suited for sinking interceptors into vaults drilled 70 feet deep. The garrison`s buildings were still intact and kept warm, even though they were no longer occupied.
With its remote location, though, it posed difficulties when constructing missile fields. All equipment and materials had to be shipped on barges or trucked hundreds of miles. Winter weather sometimes makes travel risky.
Also, the post had to accommodate the families of those accepting the remote assignment.
"It`s a tough place to live and logistically support, but it`s the right place (to be)," said Army Col. Thom M. Besch, director of the Missile Defense Agency for the Alaska region. He is an active-duty soldier who oversees the joint program office that fielded the system, makes sure it is operational, and continues its development and testing.
In the last 20 years, the number of countries interested in having or actually having intercontinental ballistic missile capability has increased from six nations to more than 20, Besch said. The number of test launches has increased every year.
"The world`s a dangerous place, and the future is uncertain, and technology allows us to have this capability," Besch said. "We know from 9/11 that if an event were to occur in a major city " that the impact to human life and the cost in dollars would be astronomical."
The intent of the system, Besch said, was to create an integrated system to defend the United States and its friends and allies against all ranges of missiles in all phases of flight.
The 49th Missile Defense Battalion focuses primarily on intercepting missiles during their midcourse phase of flight, or while they are arching in the "exoatmosphere" -- the region of space just outside the Earth`s atmosphere.
While the 54-foot-6-inch interceptors look like missiles, there are no explosive warheads attached. The main body acts as a booster vehicle. The booster vehicle serves to propel into space the embedded kill vehicle, a 152-pound "smart bullet" that basically steers itself into the path of the oncoming warhead, causing an explosion on impact.
The first interceptor was emplaced in July 2004. Now, 18 such interceptors are emplaced in the site`s two missile fields. When finished, the complex will house 40 interceptors in three fields.
The fire direction center is housed behind a heavily guarded fence that encloses the property. It serves as the brains for the operation and gathers feedback from a variety of sensors and radars, collecting data on weapons, threats and communications status, and repairs and maintenance. It also tracks the threat and the interceptor and provides commanders with an instant snapshot of the system`s capabilities.
Five-soldier crews run the center in eight-hour shifts. During their shifts, the crews run through required training and work through scenarios written to challenge their procedures and stress levels.
About 25 soldiers serve in the center. Twelve other soldiers make up the battalion`s staff. The majority of the rest of the unit is made up of military policemen, who are charged with securing and defending the facility. The MPs do not conduct garrison business, such as writing speeding tickets. They are here solely to secure the miles of camera-lined, reinforced wire fence surrounding the site and the site`s sole entry point.
Soldiers here live a typical Army life, with physical training daily at 6:30 a.m. and battalion runs on Fridays. The Guard was selected to run the site to allow for continuity in service. Guardsmen are not subject to rotations in and out of assignments like active-duty soldiers. With nearly 36 weeks of training just to become certified operators, the state is able to retain its qualified soldiers there longer. Many of the Guardsmen who signed on for initial tours in 2002 have continued their tours there. Also, because the Army considers them a forward-deployed unit, they are not subject to activations or deployments like other U.S.-based units.
The unit also gets several soldiers who are returning from deployments and want to continue serving full time, Miley said.
To say that the soldiers are all Alaska Guardsmen is somewhat deceiving. While they all are in the Alaska Army National Guard, most have transferred there from all parts of the nation. Alaska is the largest contributor, with about 30 troops, but the next highest contributor is Illinois, with 23. Soldiers also have transferred there from Guam and Puerto Rico.
Soldiers cite the appeal of the countryside and uniqueness of the mission for their desire to accept full-time tours to the site. There are no traditional, or part-time, National Guard slots on the post.
Army Sgt. Jack Carlson III was a Florida-born resident of the Virgin Islands. He had never seen snow before signing up for a tour here, where winter temperatures can drop to 75 degrees below zero. He had to buy long pants before arriving.
Now, he said, he loves the extreme weather.
"Whenever you get to 10 below, you have to survive. It`s interesting that at 50 below, although I`m cold, I can walk outside and look at the Northern Lights," Carlson said.
Carlson was one of the first military policemen on the ground here, and has since married a fellow soldier stationed here and signed on for another tour. The two bought a log home that backs up to the Alaskan range along the Delta River. Carlson`s favorite pastime is splitting wood, which is good, because the couple heats their home with wood.
The two have had one baby here, and another is expected soon. And they are not alone. Babies abound in this land of long, cold winters. The 200-member unit has seen 26 births in the past year, Family Readiness Group leader Patti Carson said.
Family members describe the post as "Americana," offering a small town, tightly-knit sense of community. Children run and play freely on the small post and in the surrounding woods. Football, baseball and hockey are favorites, and most of the mothers are stay-at-home-moms.
The post offers few amenities because of its size and location. Soldiers here joke that they do have a McDonalds and a Wal-Mart " they just have to drive out the front gate, turn right and go about 100 miles, Besch said. The post and local community share schools. A small post exchange and commissary are open, and movies are sometimes shown in the community center.
Children here don`t seem to mind the short summers. In fact, Besch`s son pined one day for it to turn cold again so he could play hockey. Carson`s kids were late to school one day because a moose made an unexpected visit to the bus stop.
But for all of the appeal of Alaska`s sweeping beauty and the down-home country lifestyle well-suited for raising families, the mission is what gives Carlson and the others the most satisfaction.
"There is no other mission like it, in the Guard especially. It`s just an outstanding opportunity," Carlson said. "Our mission is of the utmost importance, and what we do makes a difference."
Miley agreed. "There`s a sense of purpose and importance to what we`re doing," he said.
Miley, a National Guardsman from South Carolina, was one of the first to volunteer for the assignment. He served on one of the first crews and watched the first interceptor emplaced.
He noted that operational tempo is high here because soldiers must meet traditional Army training requirements, such as weapons qualification and professional development, while also conducting their missile defense mission and continuously training to keep their skills sharp.
Traditional units perform maintenance and training during a "red cycle" following deployments or exercises.
"There`s no red cycle here. It`s `green` 365-24-7. We have to maintain our operational mission. There is no standing down from it," Miley said.
By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service