The nation's toughest test of its missile defense weaponry produced stellar results thanks to Colorado Springs soldiers, the top general over the program told The Gazette.
Lt. Gen. James Dickinson, who heads Army Space and Missile Defense Command, said the soldiers from the 100th Missile Defense Brigade in Colorado Springs exemplify his push to put the Army's missile defenses on a wartime footing.
"We have to be ready to fight tonight," said Dickinson, whose command includes two brigades in Colorado Springs and an associated headquarters at Peterson Air Force Base.
The 100th Brigade, led by Colorado National Guard troops, controls interceptor missiles in Alaska and California that are designed to knock enemy warheads out of the sky.
But the system has battled years of skepticism as critics from Congress to the media have questioned whether the interceptors would actually work in wartime conditions.
The May 30th test saw one of the brigade's interceptors strike an incoming intercontinental ballistic missile in what Defense Department leaders call "a bullet hitting a bullet."
"That's exciting," said Dickinson, who has been on the job since January. "When I think about the technology that goes into that and how it has matured over the years it is phenomenal."
Dickinson is a 31-year Army veteran from Estes Park. He's got degrees from Colorado State University and the Colorado School of Mines.
He's long been considered one of the Army's top brains in missile defense and the future of anti-aircraft systems.
His command, with its main headquarters at Redstone Arsenal, Ala., oversees the Army's array of missile defense assets and sensors to spot incoming missiles.
Dickinson's troops have seldom been busier, with a near constant stream of missile tests and launches from North Korea and rising tensions with missile-armed powers including Russia and Iran.
It's actually familiar territory for Dickinson, who rose through the ranks with air defense units on the front lines of the Cold War.
"Growing up from Hawk (missiles), which is a weapons system in a museum now, that's how old I am," Dickinson joked.
He's still smiling about taking over the missile defense command.
"This is a dream job for me," he said.
The May 30 test that intercepted the inbound missile over the Pacific Ocean, Dickinson said, shows that the command's elements from the schoolhouse to the missile silo are working together.
"When you see someone demonstrate that weapons system, it validates the process to train those soldiers to perform their warfighting function," he said.
The missile test is also a taste of things to come.
The command is working on new anti-missile technologies, including a truck-mounted laser that can zap small missiles out of the sky.
The latest version of the laser underwent crew tests at Fort Sill, Okla., last month, successfully downing small drones.
It's a technology the Army has coveted for years that could be battlefield-ready soon.
"We're getting closer," Dickinson said.
Many missile defense programs will see a boost under the Trump administration, which has called it a top priority.
A Pentagon budget proposal released last month includes money for eight more interceptor missiles to be installed at Fort Greely, Alaska, putting a total of 44 under control of troops from the 100th Brigade.
The spending plan also allocates $76 million for another test of the missile defense system.
The cash and technology are great, Dickinson said, but the biggest asset of the command are its missile defense soldiers.
While soldiers in the 100th operate in one of the Army's most technical fields, they also understand what its like to fight on the front lines, Dickinson said, with many of them veterans of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"They have grown up in a combat arms environment," he said. "They understand the ground operations."
Those troops this year are also seeing a tougher regimen of training and evaluation designed to prepare them to repel enemy attacks.
The frequent missile tests in North Korea have also served to hone their skills, as troops observed launches and readied to respond, Dickinson said.
"Anytime you get to do it for real it makes you better," he said.
The skilled troops, Dickinson said, are well-positioned to keep America safe even as more nations develop long-range missiles.
He's not worried that most Americans don't know about the people who are offering that safety.
"It's pretty impressive and you don't hear a lot about us," he said. "We're the quiet professionals in terms of what we do."
Contact Tom Roeder: 636-0240