COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. - The term master gunner is used across the Army to designate noncommissioned officers who are technical experts of their assigned weapons system. The primary function of the master gunner is to assist in the planning, development, execution and evaluation of weapons-related training for their unit.

The U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense School conducted the pilot Master Gunner Course for Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) at Schriever Air Force Base March 22 through April 12. This course is meant to test and expand the knowledge of tenured Ground-based Midcourse Defense Fire Control (GFC) system operators to enhance unit readiness and capability.

"The master gunner must be an expert in all things GMD, specifically how the fire control system works below the deck plate," said William Spriggs, lead instructor of the Master Gunner Course. "Given the nature of our business, and how often the system is upgraded, the master gunner needs to be one of the Soldiers in the unit who can look forward to the changes and, based on a sound understanding of the weapon system as is, make recommendations to the command and crews on how best to use the changes in defense of the homeland."

Ground-based Midcourse Defense is an integral part of the Department of Defense's Ballistic Missile Defense System and relies on a complex architecture of global sea-, land- and space-based sensors to survey the sky and space for enemy missiles that threaten the United States and defended areas. If an enemy warhead is determined to be a threat, ground-based interceptors will be launched to intercept it in its midcourse phase of flight, outside of the earth's atmosphere.

At the core of GMD is the fire control system, which acts as its nervous system, deciphering, translating and relaying complicated data loads to operators who are in control of an otherwise highly automated enterprise.

Soldiers of the 100th Missile Defense Brigade in Colorado Springs and the 49th Missile Defense Battalion at Fort Greely, Alaska, serve as these human operators in small rotating, redundant crews. Without them, the system cannot launch ground-based interceptors to negate a threat. Soldiers must pass the intense seven-week qualification course and positional certification tables to serve on a missile defense crew.

In the past, the only certified training a Ground-based Midcourse Defense Soldier received is the qualification course. This means a Soldier had no formal follow-on training unless the unit provided it. Spriggs said he worked in close concert with other training developers and the 100th Brigade to develop the Master Gunner Course.

"Building a course is more than a coming up with a few ideas and slapping some PowerPoint slides together," Spriggs said. "The development process followed U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command guidelines and the ADDIE process: Analysis, Design, Development, Implementation and Evaluation. This process is cyclical, so we will never really stop developing the course. It is an ongoing process."

Spriggs served as a missile defender in the 100th Missile Defense Brigade and spent more than six years working on a fire control system console. He said the GMD mission is in his blood and achieving mastery of the system requires a natural intellectual curiosity about how the weapon system works.

"This is critical," said Spriggs. "Just being a great operator isn't enough. When we designed the course, we considered that most NCOs on crew are already very good at what they do. This course is not about being on crew, it is about making crews better in every way as a master gunner. That means that besides being a great operator, one must also genuinely understand what is happening behind the screens."

Spriggs said that in addition to consistently striving to learn more about the system, master gunner candidates must be passionate about their role and this mission.

"A master gunner has to truly want to be a master gunner," said Spriggs. "It is master gunner, not mediocre gunner. During the course, the hours are long, and the assignments require the candidate to exercise critical thinking.

"If the Soldier gives up easily when confronted with difficult problem sets or lacks mental discipline to force themselves to think and work through a complex problem, they are probably not good candidates. I believe it comes down to mental grit and discipline."

Spriggs said that the ideal master gunner candidate must be comfortable with training other Soldiers and public speaking.

"Take the system level knowledge of a warrant officer, the training ability of a drill sergeant and the knowledge of a training developer, mix all that together, add a dash of recruiter persuasion and you have yourself a master gunner," said Spriggs.

Sgt. 1st Class Caroline Domenech embodies that description and was a graduate of the pilot Master Gunner Course in April. Domenech has served on a missile defense crew at Fort Greely since 2014.

"When I first got on crew, I had to learn the tactical side of the mission while keeping up-to-date with the technical aspect of the system," said Domenech. "I have realized that the GFC is a complex monster that you never stop learning from. During the Master Gunner Course I had to go through different system documents, research and development studies, slide decks, and navigate the system itself in order to research something in particular for the course or expand my current knowledge."

Domenech said that while she graduated from this demanding course, she will strive to continue learning.

"The system is always evolving, and it's the same with the GMD program," said Domenech. "Now, as a master gunner, I have to study more than ever. There is an expectation out there that the master gunner must be the subject matter expert on all things GMD, so the learning never stops.

"To be a successful master gunner, you should always be curious and continue to research and learn the system, its components, and anything and everything that impacts the GMD community," Domenech said.