COLORADO SPRINGS, Colorado -- 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, or FTG-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, which is a multi-component brigade consisting of active-component U.S. Army and U.S. Army 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)."
In no particular order, this is the story of FTG-15 from the perspective of the five crew members who executed the launch.
(Their last names have been withheld for security purposes.)
Staff Sgt. Daniel, readiness officer
"We got it!"
Staff Sgt. Daniel 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."
Skeptics have knocked the "lack of realism" of FTG-15. However, Daniel said while the crew was aware there would be a test launch, they were not privy to the exact nature of what they would face and when.
"For us it was completely realistic because while we knew the day it was going to happen, we didn't know anything else," he said.
The missile defense crew Soldiers are the products of a rigorous training course led by instructors from the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command/Army Forces Strategic Command's Directorate of Training and Doctrine. They must achieve 90 percent just to be qualified to join a missile crew. Once assigned to a crew, they are immersed in an environment where daily training runs and no-notice evaluations to maintain gunnery-table certification from higher headquarters are the norm.
Daniel said that the crew on FTG-15 relied on their training and tactics, techniques and procedures. He said his crew performed flawlessly and any of the other missile defense crews would have achieved a similar result.
"The system that we have to ensure that we're proficient works because I was able to do it, so I know that anybody else here would be able to do it," Daniel asserted. "I've got 100 percent confidence in the system and all of our operators."
Daniel said the achievement does not belong exclusively to the crewmembers on shift that day.
"This was a great success for this unit on so many levels," he said. "You've got the fact that it was active duty and National Guard Soldiers together. You've got the achievement of the first ICBM target successfully engaged. You've got Warfighters on the console actually performing their wartime mission.
"We at the brigade can do this in our multiple training runs every single shift, but also when the homeland is affected."
1st Lt. Alberto, current operations officer
1st Lt. Alberto 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," said Alberto. "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," Alberto added. "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."
Alberto described ground-based midcourse defense as a "system of systems," which comprises a global network of space-, ground- and sea-based sensors. His role as the current operations officer is to communicate with and monitor the various GMD system sensors.
"Those sensors are feeding information to us," said Alberto. "As (the threat) reaches each new sensor, we're gathering more refined data, so we're tracking where the threat missile is travelling and where it's predicted impact location is. On test-launch day, I actually spoke with (Sea-based X-band Radar) and had (the crew) initiate their procedures for the launch."
Alberto said there was never any doubt that the system would work.
"We don't want to overemphasize it because this is the expectation," Alberto said. "This is a no-fail mission. The unit was supposed to do this, and we did it. We look forward to doing more tests with more complex scenarios.
"This test put the 100th Missile Defense Brigade on the map," he added. "We were more under the radar before, but this reassures the rest of the military community, the nation, and world that we have this ability and this ability works. The American people can count on us."
Staff Sgt. John, future operations officer
Staff Sgt. John 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," said John. "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.
John described a large group of people in the room for the flight test May 30, including materiel developers and Missile Defense Agency personnel, but the crew remained solely focused.
"For the crew, we saw it and we engaged the threat," said John. "We got to watch the intercept and see it was successful. It was pretty cool.
"I guess I had never really thought about what an actual intercept would look like," he said. "It was really cool to see just a huge ball of infrared fire. I expected it to work. I guess I never really questioned if it would work or not. I just expected it to work and it worked. The technology is constantly improving."
Maj. Jeremy, deputy director
"This is the best version of the system ever in place to meet the current threats," said Jeremy. "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, Alaska, as part of the 49th Missile Defense Battalion.
"It's been very rewarding to see how the system and the organization has changed," said Jeremy.
The total number of emplaced ground-based interceptors increased to 44 in 2017, due in part to the success of FTG-15, Jeremy said.
"We've gone from a limited number of GBIs at the onset of the program to now having 44," said Jeremy. "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."
Jeremy said that May 30 was special because of the rarity of the opportunity for the GMD system to launch a GBI.
"It was an exciting day," said Jeremy. "Just like any other Soldier, you train, train, train, and some Soldiers never get the chance to actually do their job. For us it was a chance to actually engage and destroy an ICBM. It was very rewarding and we felt honored to be able to do that. Because we train so much, we weren't worried. It wasn't a stressful situation. It was second nature."
Although the 100th Missile Defense Brigade is a National Guard unit, Jeremy was the only Guardsman on the crew during FTG-15.
"We are standing watch 24/7 to protect the homeland," said Jeremy. "It doesn't get any more 'National Guard' than that."
Lt. Col. Jeffrey, director
Lt. Col. Jeffrey, executive officer of the 100th Missile Defense Brigade, is a U.S. 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," said Jeffrey. "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."
Jeffrey said that the overall test record of the GMD is not a fair judgment of the system's current capabilities, and FTG-15 proved that.
"Look at the most recent test," he said. "Look at the threat that we put this last one up against. Now we have a more advanced GBI and EKV. The basic construct is the same. The concept is the same, but the equipment and details are much more advanced.
"Testing is important, I'm glad we do test," Jeffrey continued. "It helps build faith and confidence. It's only going to help improve the system. As we see more complex threats, we need to create more complex tests. It would be a mistake to not continue testing, developing, and refining our system."