By Amy Guckeen-Tolson, USAG RedstoneDecember 14, 2010
REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. -- Maj. Gen. Francis Mahon doesn't know the number of funerals he has attended in his life as a Soldier, but every one of them has touched his heart.
Today, as director for test at Missile Defense Agency, his role when it comes to the Soldiers serving in harm's way has changed, but his mission and heart remains in the same place.
"It brings into perspective that our business is serious," Mahon said of MDA's relationship with the Soldier. "And there are lives on the end of decisions that get made inside the development community. I haven't kept track of how many funerals I've done or how many times I've received remains, but you remember each one. It rings true that this is real and there are people on the other end."
They are decisions, however, that need to be made to keep the United States and its allies away from danger. In a November summit at Lisbon, NATO leaders agreed to develop a missile defense capability that would protect NATO's populations in Europe against ballistic missile attacks. President Obama approved recommendations last year to develop a phased, adaptive approach for missile defense in Europe, according to a release by MDA, an approach that allows for the technology to adapt as the security environment evolves, while remaining fiscally sustainable in the long term. The United States' plan will contribute to NATO's missile defense architecture.
The 2010 findings of the Ballistic Missile Defense Review, a review conducted to evaluate threats and develop a missile defense posture, cite the threat from short, medium and intermediate-range ballistic missiles to be growing steadily in areas where U.S. forces are deployed. The phased adaptive approach provides for the defense of those forces and their families, as well as U.S. allies in Europe. Phase One of the plan, slated to begin around 2011, will deploy missile defense systems to address regional ballistic missile threats to Europe, as well as deployed U.S. forces, including the sea-based Aegis Weapon System, SM-3 interceptor (Block IA), and sensors such as the forward-based Army Navy/Transportable Radar system.
"We've got the homeland mission, the concern on counter intercontinental ballistic missile, and now with the Ballistic Missile Defense Review really the regional mission for the regional commanders, EUCOM, CENTCOM, PACOM has moved to the forefront," Mahon said. "In that respect, how do you build a general architecture that you can apply to each of those regions, and then you have to tailor it somewhat for the region. The whole concept of the phased adaptive approach is that you have a set of tools or capabilities and we field them over time to the different regions as required, but we have to modify them somewhat in each region, because each region is a little bit different.
"Eventually you'll be bringing in coalition partners. Look at OIF - the Kuwaitis and the American patriots worked together, so in the future now you've got the Saudis have the Patriot, the Kuwaitis have Patriot, the Emirates are buying THAAD and Patriot. As you build an architecture to support each combatant commander, ideally you'd like all of the coalition partners to be able to plug in and contribute."
MDA is currently working on its first integrated master test plan for 2011, a process that is done semiannually and runs from present day to 2020, to determine what tests need to be done.
"We're trying to lay down the tests we think we need to do in a prioritized manner and then resource those tests," Mahon said. "The biggest challenge we have now is we still don't have a budget for fiscal year '11, yet there are tests we want to execute and need to execute because those tests are all built to support the phased adaptive approach and the Ballistic Missile Defense report's guidelines. Our greatest challenge right now is keeping that test plan on path.
"You have the technical challenges inside each program that's going to be tested, they pretty much are staying on path, and then you have the target challenge because we've got to develop targets, procure those targets, and it all comes back to do I have the funding to start that process this year to service the test next year. If I don't have that process rolling, then the next year's test is in jeopardy."
There once was a time in Mahon's career when his greatest concern was crunching numbers, not worrying about the security of our country, let alone world. A graduate of the University of Delaware, Mahon's first profession was as an accountant, where he dreamed of pursuing a career in the FBI. Due to the Bureau's extremely slow and selective process in the late '70s, he chose instead to join the Army. Receiving his last call from the FBI to come in for one more interview the day he graduated from officers basic course, he told the recruiter to look him up in three years because he'd made another career choice. Needless to say, those three years came and went, and Mahon still stands with that career choice today.
"I haven't regretted it, though I thought long and hard about it once as a second lieutenant," Mahon said. "The rain was going down my neck because my poncho was torn, I had been awake for two and a half days and there was a puddle in my lap and I said, 'My gross pay as a second lieutenant is less than my first month's net pay as an accountant. Did I make the right choice'' Then the radio barked, I was given a change of mission, I rallied the platoon and we rolled - and I've really never thought about another career since. I'm still here today."
Largely to thank for that are the men and women he has worked with and mentored for the past 31 years. He is a Soldier's Soldier, drawing his strength from his peers and the joy one receives watching as a private becomes a staff sergeant. Many Soldiers serving the nation have Mahon to thank for helping them become the servicemember they are today.
"My wife will tell you that I enjoy finding a lost lieutenant in the middle of the night," Mahon said. "The best part about the military is being with the young people, that's the easiest way to say it - the joy of seeing when somebody learns something or grasps the concept. You kind of liken it to coaching. If you've ever coached Pee Wee soccer, by the end of the season you can see where they've come, whereas at the start of the season two kids generally understood the game, but by the end of the season they're playing as a team. And you see that as you see a unit grow, or as you see privates become sergeants, sergeants become senior NCOs.
"At this point in my career, I'm the last guy from my officer basic course on active duty, and it's great to see guys who were my lieutenants now as battalion commanders or about to be battalion commanders. So it is working with the young and seeing them grow and develop."
In his year as director for test at MDA, Mahon has also had time to grow and develop in his new role. The first test he observed was of a FTG 06 Ground-Based Midcourse Defense last February, which gave him a view into the intricate work MDA performs each day. The lessons learned as he discovers those intricacies and complexities is what he enjoys about the position.
"I really marveled at the complexity and all the moving parts inside a test, and that's probably our biggest challenge," Mahon said. "The target is just as complex as the interceptor we're trying to shoot the target down with in many respects. I have greater confidence in the interceptors than I do with some of the targets. But if the target fails then it becomes a no test or a potentially failed test. Many, many moving parts and the operating distances that we perform tests over to try and replicate the operational distances are really stressing. "
One of the greatest lessons he has learned since taking over the position in September 2009, is simply the importance of what MDA's Directorate for Test does on a day to day basis.
"Tests are important," Mahon said. "It's a lot easier to give them than take them. Gen. (Patrick) O'Reilly makes the comment that 'testing is the number one thing we do because it validates our capability and our credibility.' We want our tests to be as accurate as they can be and realistic as they can be. You learn a lot when we fail at a test, although our objective really is to demonstrate capability through testing. It is our number one focus."
While his number one focus at work is on tests, in his personal life, the husband and father of four is still in the exploring stage when it comes to his new home in the Huntsville community.
Having spent a lot of time in the Rocket City in the late 1980s, Mahon can remember when the first Hampton Inn was built. Thanks to what he calls the "phenomenal" growth in the city, he and his family are able to rediscover the area and all the changes it has undergone in the last two decades.
"The community has really opened their arms and embraced us, not just MDA, but the entire Redstone community," Mahon said. "We are appreciative of that and we really do want to be part of the community and support the community."