COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – As the stranglehold of the COVID-19 pandemic tightened its grip on America, closing schools, businesses and government institutions, the focus for the Soldiers at the 100th Missile Defense Brigade (Ground-based Midcourse Defense) became singular – maintain the mission, no matter what.
That mission is the federally mandated defense of the United States homeland from intercontinental ballistic missile attack. A limited number of U.S. Army Soldiers in Alaska, California and Colorado operate a sophisticated fire control system that can, on-order, launch ground-based interceptor missiles to destroy incoming warheads in outer space. This is a task that cannot be done from home, as missile defense crews operate together within the walls of secured facilities.
Since the onset of the pandemic, the 100th Missile Defense Brigade has implemented measures to ensure the continued execution of its mission including sequestering crew members from their homes and families.
“I deployed to Afghanistan with an infantry platoon, so I know what it’s like to be truly deployed to a mountainous combat outpost in a war zone,” said Staff Sgt. Hayden Murray, a 100th Missile Defense Brigade readiness operations officer. “This is different, but not completely. We are ‘deployed in place’ and our job is the defense of the homeland. At any time, we could go into a war posture and we must be able to engage threats 24/7/365.”
The brigade has operated on that 24/7/365 basis since 2004, its war posture predicated on the steadily increasing nuclear missile capabilities of near-peer nations and rogue states. Two redundant crews – one at Schriever Air Force Base, Colorado, that is responsible for the oversight of crisis procedures, and another at Fort Greely, Alaska, that handles the tactical, “right-now” portion of the fight – work in concert under the command and control of U.S. Northern Command.
They are the human interface to an otherwise highly automated system. Any degradation to crew readiness could leave America vulnerable to a nuclear detonation on U.S. soil.
Realizing the pandemic had the potential to interrupt its strategic mission, the staff at both the brigade headquarters in Colorado Springs and the 49th Missile Defense Battalion at Fort Greely commenced planning to provide viable courses of action to protect the health of the force and preserve the mission.
“Throughout the planning process, we worked in close coordination with our mission partners at Fort Greely garrison, the Missile Defense Agency and our higher headquarters in the Alaska Army National Guard and the 100th Missile Defense Brigade to understand and leverage resources,” said Capt. Luis Lugonazario, the chief of operations for the 49th Missile Defense Battalion. “That process produced an early operations order to be executed on a phased approach as we were meeting the preset triggers.”
One of the main challenges facing 100th Missile Defense Brigade commander Col. Christopher Williams was balancing the continuation of the mission with the local situation at each of the sites under his authority.
“The Soldiers at Fort Greely already live in relative isolation,” said Williams, noting the remoteness of Fort Greely in the Alaska interior. “Their situation is different from ours in Colorado or at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.”
However, in early April, a Department of the Army civilian at Fort Greely tested positive for COVID-19, setting the crew sequestration plan in motion there.
“Crews on shift were sequestered to the barracks for the duration of their 14-day deployment cycles with no access to the commissary, Post Exchange, gym or other common access areas,” said Lugonazario. “Crew members are allowed no physical contact or gatherings with anyone outside of their current crew to minimize exposure and to guarantee a ‘clean’ crew is performing the mission at all times.”
Shortly thereafter, the brigade crews in Colorado Springs began a rotation of sequestration, starting with Murray’s crew and others.
“We can only go from work to our rooms so it’s strange being in the town we live in, staying in lodging, and knowing that my wife and kids are down the road but I can’t go see them,” said Murray. “The crew jokes that we spend more time together than with our families, and now that is actually true.”
The missile defense crews are configured in five- to six-Soldier teams with each member serving in a position of varying roles and responsibilities. Once 100th Missile Defense Brigade Soldiers – whether active component or National Guard – clock in for duty, they immediately transition to Title 10 and operate under federal authority.
Williams said that unlike with other military missions, a request for additional forces to augment organic troops is impossible due to the training each Soldier must undertake to become a certified operator.
“We can’t just plug and play another Soldier into the ground-based midcourse defense mission,” said Williams, estimating that it takes each Soldier three to six months of intensive training to become proficient on the system.
Williams said that the brigade regularly faces variables that can diminish the readiness of a crew member or an entire crew, including car accidents, the seasonal flu, or family emergencies, but those situations do not often impact other crews. He acknowledged that this situation does have the potential to overlap from one crew to another, which is why protecting crew members is so vital.
Maj. Christopher Stutz, a 100th Missile Defense Brigade crew director, said the brigade has also increased the emphasis on sanitizing shared work consoles, even though the crew changeovers are not happening face to face, as is typical.
“There has been a definite focus on keeping our billeting and workspaces in top shape,” said Stutz. “We share the operational node with other crews, so cleanliness has always been a top priority. Our chief concern is the mission and we must stay healthy to accomplish it.”
In addition to isolating crews, the 100th Missile Defense Brigade has been training additional Soldiers who normally serve in staff roles to certify as operators, increasing flexibility in crew configurations.
Williams said missile defenders are a high priority for the Department of Defense’s COVID-19 testing program to quickly identify any Soldiers who are sick and replace them; the brigade now has a robust assemblage of potential replacements.
“We are more ready now than we have been in the last 16 years,” said Williams. “We have been able to turn nearly 100 percent of our efforts to our operational mission and our bench of additional operators is deeper than ever before. The job our missile defense operations and evaluations team has done to prepare and train backup crew members is nothing short of exemplary. We’re ready to replace entire crews with certified operators from within the brigade if needed.”
Still, Williams said his top priority is to protect Soldiers’ health and mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. Thus, he said the 100th Missile Defense Brigade will continue these heightened measures for as long as necessary.
Staff Sgt. Joseph Harris, a readiness operations officer in Colorado Springs, said he feels privileged to serve in the 100th Missile Defense Brigade during this time of uncertainty.
“It’s an honor to be part of something that means so much more than oneself,” Harris said. “It’s also tough to watch the citizens of this country lose their livelihoods and know that some of those citizens will have an extremely difficult time getting back on track. To the families who have lost loved ones, we are praying for you. We understand that this is a strange and absolutely difficult time, but we will get through this, and we will come out stronger on the other side.