A Colorado Springs National Guard brigade that defends the continent from missile attacks got its first homegrown commander Monday during a ceremony at Peterson Air Force Base.
Col. Michael Hatfield joined the 100th Missile Defense Brigade in Colorado Springs shortly after it was formed in 2003 and rose through nearly every position the unit offers before taking the top job Monday. There, he commands 300 soldiers in Colorado, Alaska and California who control interceptor missiles that can knock out nuclear warheads at the edge of space.
The unit is so relatively new and so specialized that Hatfield is the first among its ranks to wear a colonel's eagles.
"More than anything, it is humbling," Hatfield said of reaching the top post.
Hatfield took over from Col. Christopher Williams who is headed to Huntsville, Ala, where he will help oversee technology development for the Army's Space and Missile Defense Command. Williams referred to the unit he led as the "300 defending the 300 million."
"People you will never meet rise and sleep under a blanket of security you provide," Williams told troops gathered for the ceremony and an online audience from the 100th's far-flung detachments.
Many of the unit's soldiers work near a missile field at Fort Greely Alaska that contains 40 of the unit's 44 interceptor missiles. The Boeing-built missiles launch a "kill vehicle" into space on the opposite path of incoming missiles, knocking out warheads with a head-on crash at speeds topping 15,000 mph. It’s been compared to stopping a bullet in flight with another bullet.
It's also a mission most people wouldn't associate with the National Guard, which is primarily made up of part-time troops who work for governors across the nation.
How the part-time Guard wound up with one of the nation's most critical full-time missions goes back to controversy surrounding the costly missile defense program as the Bush administration was pushing it through congress.
By giving the mission to the Guard, the Pentagon gave a nod to the traditional role of state militias in homeland defense while acquiring the Guard's 50-state lobbying power, which drove the missile defense program past initial congressional reluctance.
The 100th came to Colorado Springs because of its proximity to U.S. Northern Command, which oversees defense of the continent, and the region's variety of space units which track missiles from launch and in flight with a mix of satellites and radars.
The crews who control launch of the interceptors work at Schriever Air Force Base and have operated under quarantine conditions to keep up with the 24-hour-a-day mission amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Lt. Gen Daniel Karbler, who heads Space and Missile Defense Command, praised Williams who came to the 100th after a career focused on air defense and has kept crews safely on the job during the pandemic.
"The leadership I have seen from Col. Williams has been just phenomenal," Karbler said.
Hatfield, a 1996 ROTC graduate of Ohio University and father of four, entered the Army as an enlisted combat medic before joining the officer ranks.
The general pointed to Hatfield’s depth of missile defense experience.
"I can't think of a better person to come in and lead this team," he said.