U.S. Navy Commander Colin S. Monk, the officer in charge of the White Sands Missile Range Detachment of the Naval Surface Warfare Center Port Hueneme Division will soon be leaving WSMR for his next assignment at AEGIS BMD Missile Defense Agency, Dahlgren, Virginia. In this article he reflects on his time at WSMR as an awesome mission working with an amazing team that has forever altered his expectations.
“We shoot missiles and blow stuff up in the desert and at sea – that is awesome. The people who do that and get the mission done are amazing,” Monk said. “I’ve never worked with so many smart people. And I’ve worked with a lot of smart people before. But working with folks who just know how to go execute some very niche technical capabilities – that has been amazing.”
“This is a command position where I have an incredible amount of responsibility for a lot of people, and I will probably never have that again,” Monk said. “The biggest thing is I have been ruined, as far as my expectations of how quickly things can happen.”
Monk said one of his senior leaders told him to be prepared to go a lot slower in future positions.
“I am not going to settle for that. I can’t do that now. I know that it can be done faster. I know that it can be done better. My expectations have forever been altered.”
Monk, who arrived at WSMR in June 2019, talked about some of the missions the Navy Detachment team accomplished, which he described as exciting. “Some of the things the team did were meaningful because of the way they were able to accomplish them,” Monk said.
The RAM Block 2B test series at WSMR, which started in late 2019.
Monk said the RAM program had been doing testing in China Lake, California for years. Unfortunately, a catastrophic earthquake in 2019 impacted several of their testing capabilities so they reached out to the WSMR Navy Detachment.
He said they had a test coming up and they were not able to do it in China Lake because of the damage caused by the earthquake. “It was going to be at least several months delayed, possibly as much as a year before they would be able to do the test (in China Lake), so the program office called our office about three months out from their scheduled test event.”
Monk said the team at WSMR took the phone call and they were able to launch the missile. “They pulled the whole thing together and 90 days later launched the first test flight, CTV-1A. This was the first time this missile had been launched at WSMR for over a decade.”
Monk said the test execution was critical for the program to be on schedule and very impressive. “The team here did it as if it was just another day at WSMR despite dealing with a lot of technical challenges in a short period of time. They made it look easy.” Monk said they needed a specific launcher, which WSMR didn’t have, and they had to bring it here.
Another highlight was in October 2020 when they had several major missile test events back-to-back. “There was the SM2 Block 3C, then the very next week the team did the LFT8, which was part of the Navy’s piece of Project Convergence 21, where we did an integrated fire control missile shot from the Desert Ship,” Monk said. “Then a week after that we did FTR74, which is another major mission. And then that same week we did another mission where we launched the French Research Rocket Pathfinder. We built and delivered this entire research rocket capability to France, to include their launch complex, the launcher itself and the flight vehicle – the rocket. We did our first launch for that program on that same week. And oh, by the way, in the background, we had a security inspection and an explosive safety inspection, both of which we passed with flying colors.”
Monk said the Navy Detachment had never done three missiles in three weeks from the USS Desert Ship. “The highest repetitive rate recorded at the ship was when we did two missile shots separated by three weeks. And that took the entire detachment to execute that sequence of operations in October. They did it, they were all very successful and it was flawless and incredible - unprecedented.”
Another highlight was when they did Formidable Shield 21, which is an integrated air and missile defense exercise, which is conducted every other year. “Not only did we launch one of our MRBM targets, but we also built and delivered a modified 4.3K launcher, which is a dual arm launcher. That was the first ever launch of a GQM163 in EUCOM.
THE NAVY TEAM
“People are everything and people are our most important asset,” Monk said. “We couldn’t have done the RAM test event without our test officers. It is people who have the experience and the expertise, who not only know what needs to get done, but then also to go and do it.”
“We are staffed with doers, people who get the missions done.”
To the credit of the Navy Detachment, all these accomplishments were done in the middle of COVID-19.
Monk said dealing with COVID itself was a big challenge. Understandably, many folks across the country and at WSMR were very hesitant to go to work, and a lot of people were teleworking, for a very good reason. “There is nothing wrong with that at all,” Monk said.
“If I can brag on this team again, the test mission out here at the Navy Detachment, and really all of WSMR, didn’t skip a beat. The folks out here basically just wanted to figure out what the precautions were so that they could get back to work,” Monk said.
At the same time, Monk said they did have to take a lot of measures to make sure it was done safely. “We were dealing with social distancing, minimum manning, minimum travel, making sure that we had close tabs not only on the people that were coming here to execute missions but how they were conducting themselves when they were here,” Monk said. “It was a lot to manage and a lot to figure out. There were some challenges there when from time to time we did have a couple of cases throughout the pandemic, but we were fortunate that comparatively they were very few. But for every single one of those cases, we had McAfee Medical Clinic as part of our team.”
Leading people through the uncertainty of all that was a challenge.
“We have the benefit of having a medical clinic right here. It is not huge, but the leadership was able to provide guidance and medical support during this health crisis, which was hugely valuable.”
Monk said the Navy Detachment was able to depend on the public health professionals at McAfee. “We were especially fortunate that we had one of the few board-certified public health doctors on staff at McAfee (at that time), Dr. Sandra Lafon. That was huge.”
“And then of course there is the leadership across WSMR. It is a very tight leadership organization. There was a lot of great communication, and a great leadership support network as we all figured out how to navigate the situation. That was helpful.”
“I grew in so many ways,” Monk said. “One of the biggest challenges that I had not really anticipated was exceptionally obvious once I got here, but I didn’t even think about it. This was the first time I found myself in a position where I was the leader of leaders.”
Monk said the Navy Detachment has a lot of folks, division managers, branch managers, supervisors, and what he called high grade smart people who aren’t necessarily supervisors.
“We have a lot of folks who are leading smaller teams. I found myself in a position where I was not only leading the team that I had direct one-on-one contact with to go get a particular mission done, but I was leading team leaders who were leading teams to go get something done.”
He said that was different from his previous assignments. “Trying to strike that balance where you are trying to lead the team to a particular objective but give them enough space where they can be leaders unto themselves and have maneuver space and decision space to lead their teams the way they need to be led was new for me.”
Monk said he, his wife and two children really loved living at WSMR.
“It has been a great place. A great tight knit small community.”
He said he and his family were very fortunate to make some close friends.
“I found myself especially fortunate as the senior Navy guy. I got to be close friends with some of the other senior leaders here, so I count myself very fortunate.”
In addition to that, he said WSMR is just a great little community of people. “People take care of each other. The comparison to Mayberry is made often, and appropriately. People watch out for each other, and you know that you are safe. There is no better place to be when a pandemic is sweeping across the world than this tight knit little community in the middle of the desert.”
Speaking of his job, Monk said one of the things he will miss most about the job is the autonomy.
“I will miss the autonomy of being able to be the officer in charge of a Navy Detachment where my closest navy supervision is 900 miles away. I had a lot of freedom to do the job the way I thought it needed to be done; and I was fortunate to have bosses who gave me clear guidance, but plenty of space to execute as I saw fit.”
“Not to say there weren’t people looking over my shoulder, but I had a lot of autonomy. I will miss that,” Monk said. “That gave me the leeway to enable the people here to get the job done the way they knew it needed to get done and the results we’ve been able to achieve are remarkable.”
A Change of Command ceremony is scheduled for 10 a.m. May 12 in front of Navy Headquarters.