In Alaska, soldiers relish role in US missile defense

FORT GREELY, Alaska, April 26 (Reuters) - Two hours south of Fairbanks, Alaska, near the starting point of the Alaska highway, sit row upon row of missile silos embedded in the frozen ground in the shadow of snow-capped mountains.

Despite their location, far from Washington, D.C., Pyongyang, or Moscow, the 40 missiles here could one day decide the fate of millions of Americans.

The missiles and a few dozen National Guard soldiers will form the first line of defense should North Korea, or any other country, fire an intercontinental ballistic missile at the United States.

In recent months, North Korea has said it has developed a missile that can reach the United States mainland.

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Inside the Ft. Greely missile defense complex in Alaska
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Inside the Ft. Greely missile defense complex in Alaska
Defense Satellite Communication System with Alaska Range in the background at the Ft. Greely missile defense complex in Fort Greely, Alaska, U.S., April 26, 2018. REUTERS/Mark Meyer
Major Terri Homestead, Senior Tactical Director, 49th Fire Direction Center, performs missile defense exercises at the Ft. Greely missile defense complex in Fort Greely, Alaska, U.S., April 26, 2018. REUTERS/Mark Meyer
Cover of a silo housing a ground-based interceptor missile at the Ft. Greely missile defense complex in Fort Greely, Alaska, U.S., April 26, 2018. REUTERS/Mark Meyer
Sergeant Yamil Ramirez, of the 49th Missile Defense Battalion Military Police at the Ft. Greely missile defense complex in Fort Greely, Alaska, U.S., April 26, 2018. REUTERS/Mark Meyer
Captain Jospeh Radke, Battle Analyst of the 49th Fire Direction Center, performs missile defense exercises at the Ft. Greely missile defense complex in Fort Greely, Alaska, U.S., April 26, 2018. REUTERS/Mark Meyer
Defense Satellite Communication System with Alaska Range in the background at the Ft. Greely missile defense complex in Fort Greely, Alaska, U.S., April 26, 2018. REUTERS/Mark Meyer
Sergeant Yamil Ramirez (on ground) and Specialist Elliot Besh, of the 49th Missile Defense Battalion Military Police at the Ft. Greely missile defense complex in Fort Greely, Alaska, U.S., April 26, 2018. REUTERS/Mark Meyer
Staff Sergeant Justin Taylor, Weapons Operator, 49th Fire Direction Center, performs missile defense exercises at the Ft. Greely missile defense complex in Fort Greely, Alaska, U.S., April 26, 2018. REUTERS/Mark Meyer
Specialist Sychelle Gonsalves, of the 49th Missile Defense Battalion Military Police at the Ft. Greely missile defense complex in Fort Greely, Alaska, U.S., April 26, 2018. REUTERS/Mark Meyer
Major Terri Homestead, Senior Tactical Director, 49th Fire Direction Center, performs missile defense exercises at the Ft. Greely missile defense complex in Fort Greely, Alaska, U.S., April 26, 2018. REUTERS/Mark Meyer
Defense Satellite Communication System with Alaska Range in the background at the Ft. Greely missile defense complex in Fort Greely, Alaska, U.S., April 26, 2018. REUTERS/Mark Meyer
Sergeant Yamil Ramirez (on ground) and Specialist Elliot Besh, of the 49th Missile Defense Battalion Military Police at the Ft. Greely missile defense complex in Fort Greely, Alaska, U.S., April 26, 2018. REUTERS/Mark Meyer
Major Terri Homestead, Senior Tactical Director, 49th Fire Direction Center, performs missile defense exercises at the Ft. Greely missile defense complex in Fort Greely, Alaska, U.S., April 26, 2018. REUTERS/Mark Meyer
Cover of a silo housing a ground-based interceptor missile at the Ft. Greely missile defense complex in Fort Greely, Alaska, U.S., April 26, 2018. REUTERS/Mark Meyer
Cover of a silo housing a ground-based interceptor missile at the Ft. Greely missile defense complex in Fort Greely, Alaska, U.S., April 26, 2018. REUTERS/Mark Meyer
Sign describing warning system outside a field housing ground-based interceptor missiles at the Ft. Greely missile defense complex in Fort Greely, Alaska, U.S., April 26, 2018. REUTERS/Mark Meyer
Military Police Humvee patrols the missile fields at the Ft. Greely missile defence complex in Fort Greely, Alaska, U.S., April 26, 2018. REUTERS/Mark Meyer
Specialist Elliot Besh of the 49th Missile Defense Battalion Military Police is pictured at the Ft. Greely missile defense complex in Fort Greely, Alaska, U.S., April 26, 2018. REUTERS/Mark Meyer
Colonel Kevin R. Kick, Commander of the 100th Missile Defense Brigade, addresses the media at the Ft. Greely missile defense complex in Fort Greely, Alaska, U.S., April 26, 2018. REUTERS/Mark Meyer
Specialist Sychelle Gonsalves of the 49th Missile Defense Battalion Military Police is pictured at the Ft. Greely missile defense complex in Fort Greely, Alaska, U.S., April 26, 2018. REUTERS/Mark Meyer
Brigadier General Joseph Streff, Army National Guard Commander, addresses members of the press at the Ft. Greely missile defense complex in Fort Greely, Alaska, U.S., April 26, 2018. REUTERS/Mark Meyer
Specialist Elliot Besh of the 49th Missile Defense Battalion Military Police is pictured at the Ft. Greely missile defense complex in Fort Greely, Alaska, U.S., April 26, 2018. REUTERS/Mark Meyer
Specialist Sychelle Gonsalves of the 49th Missile Defense Battalion Military Police is pictured at the Ft. Greely missile defense complex in Fort Greely, Alaska, U.S., April 26, 2018. REUTERS/Mark Meyer
Defense Satellite Communication System with Alaska Range at the Ft. Greely missile defense complex in Fort Greely, Alaska, U.S., April 26, 2018. REUTERS/Mark Meyer
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In a control room at Ft. Greely, just outside the small town of Delta Junction, five soldiers performed a simulation on Thursday showing reporters how they would respond to an attack.

"The first threat in the system shows an impact location of Los Angeles," said Captain Jospeh Radke, the team's battle analyst, referring to the second largest U.S. city.

"Threat in the system is showing Los Angeles, we’re going to engage at this time," said Major Terri Homestead, the crew's director.

Homestead then gave orders to the team’s weapons operator, Staff Sergeant Justin Taylor, to fire one missile from Ft. Greely and another from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

The five-person team is one of 10 units that operate the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense system. They spend 60 percent to 70 percent of their working days running drills, trying to account for any possible scenario.

25 PHOTOS
Satellite images of the Punggye-ri nuclear test site in North Korea
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Satellite images of the Punggye-ri nuclear test site in North Korea
PUNGGYE-RI NUCLEAR TEST SITE, NORTH KOREA - APRIL 2, 2017. Figure 1. Activity continues at the North Portal. (Photo DigitalGlobe/38 North via Getty Images)
PUNGGYE-RI NUCLEAR TEST SITE, NORTH KOREA - APRIL 2, 2017. Figure 2. Possible new dumping observed at the North Portal spoil pile. (Photo DigitalGlobe/38 North via Getty Images)
PUNGGYE-RI NUCLEAR TEST SITE, NORTH KOREA - APRIL 2, 2017. Figure 3. Probable personnel in formation or equipment in rows at the Main Administrative Area. (Photo DigitalGlobe/38 North via Getty Images)
PUNGGYE-RI NUCLEAR TEST SITE, NORTH KOREA - MARCH 30, 2017. Figure 1. No vehicles or trailers remain around the North Portal but well-worn paths are observed. (Photo DigitalGlobe/38 North via Getty Images)
PUNGGYE-RI NUCLEAR TEST SITE, NORTH KOREA - MARCH 30, 2017. Figure 2. No new dumping of material on the North Portal spoil pile. (Photo DigitalGlobe/38 North via Getty Images)
PUNGGYE-RI NUCLEAR TEST SITE, NORTH KOREA - MARCH 30, 2017. Figure 3. Small collection of crates or trailers seen in previous imagery has been removed. (Photo DigitalGlobe/38 North via Getty Images)
PUNGGYE-RI NUCLEAR TEST SITE, NORTH KOREA - MARCH 28, 2017. Figure 3B. Formations seen in the Main Administrative Area, similar to what was seen in lead up to 2013 nuclear test. (Photo DigitalGlobe/38 North via Getty Images)
PUNGGYE-RI NUCLEAR TEST SITE, NORTH KOREA - MARCH 28, 2017. Figure 2. Material dumped at the North Portal tailings pile. (Photo DigitalGlobe/38 North via Getty Images)
PUNGGYE-RI NUCLEAR TEST SITE, NORTH KOREA - JANUARY 4, 2013. Figure 3A. Formations seen in the Main Administrative Area in lead up to 2013 nuclear test. (Photo DigitalGlobe/38 North via Getty Images)
PUNGGYE-RI NUCLEAR TEST SITE, NORTH KOREA - MARCH 28, 2017. Figure 1. Continued activity at the North Portal. (Photo DigitalGlobe/38 North via Getty Images)
PUNGGYE-RI NUCLEAR TEST SITE, NORTH KOREA - MARCH 25, 2017. Figure 1. Probable cabling and water drainage seen at the North Portal. (Photo DigitalGlobe/38 North via Getty Images)
PUNGGYE-RI NUCLEAR TEST SITE, NORTH KOREA - OCTOBER 19th, 2016: Figure 6: Excavation continued underground in the North Portal area suggesting more tests to come in the same tunnel complex directly under Mt. Mantap. (Photo DigitalGlobe/38 North via Getty Images)
PUNGGYE-RI NUCLEAR TEST SITE, NORTH KOREA - JANUARY 5th, 2017: Figure 7: The North Portal spoil pile continued to expand into 2017, becoming increasingly broader. (Photo DigitalGlobe/38 North via Getty Images)
PUNGGYE-RI NUCLEAR TEST SITE, NORTH KOREA - JANUARY 22nd, 2017: Figure 8: Late January 2017 imagery showing new spoil on top of recent snow. (Photo DigitalGlobe/38 North via Getty Images)
PUNGGYE-RI NUCLEAR TEST SITE, NORTH KOREA - OCTOBER 19th, 2016: Figure 9. A close-up of the North Portal spoil pile as it appeared in late October 2016. The unstable spoil can sometimes lead to accidents, as in this case of toppled rail cars downslope. (Photo DigitalGlobe/38 North via Getty Images)
PUNGGYE-RI NUCLEAR TEST SITE, NORTH KOREA - FEBRUARY 12th, 2017: Figure 10. A close-up of the North Portal spoil pile from February 2017 shows that accumulations had begun move westward with a broadening of the top and bottom west side of the pile. (Photo DigitalGlobe/38 North via Getty Images)
PUNGGYE-RI NUCLEAR TEST SITE, NORTH KOREA - MARCH 7th, 2017: Figure 1. DigitalGlobe imagery showing large shipping container or crate seen at the North Portal. Date: March 7, 2017. (Photo DigitalGlobe/38 North via Getty Images)
PUNGGYE-RI NUCLEAR TEST SITE, NORTH KOREA - MARCH 7th, 2017: Figure 2. DigitalGlobe imagery showing no changes to pattern and texture of tailings (spoil) pile at the North Portal. Date: March 7, 2017. (Photo DigitalGlobe/38 North via Getty Images)
PUNGGYE-RI NUCLEAR TEST SITE, NORTH KOREA - MARCH 7th, 2017: Figure 3. DigitalGlobe imagery showing a small vehicle present at the West Portal. Date: March 7, 2017. (Photo DigitalGlobe/38 North via Getty Images)
PUNGGYE-RI NUCLEAR TEST SITE, NORTH KOREA - MARCH 7th, 2017: Figure 4. DigitalGlobe imagery showing a truck present in the southern courtyard of the Main Administrative Area. Date: March 7, 2017. (Photo DigitalGlobe/38 North via Getty Images)
PUNGGYE-RI NUCLEAR TEST SITE, NORTH KOREA - MARCH 7th, 2017: Figure 5. DigitalGlobe imagery showing a truck present at the sites Command Center. Date: March 7, 2017. (Photo DigitalGlobe/38 North via Getty Images)
PUNGGYE-RI NUCLEAR TEST SITE, NORTH KOREA - MARCH 7th, 2017: Figure 6. DigitalGlobe imagery showing snow cleared at guard barrack and security checkpoint. Date: March 7, 2017. (Photo DigitalGlobe/38 North via Getty Images)
PUNGGYE-RI NUCLEAR TEST SITE, NORTH KOREA - OCTOBER 24, 2016: Figure 2. No activity seen at the Sohae launch pad. Date: October 24, 2016. (Photo DigitalGlobe/38 North via Getty Images)
PUNGGYE-RI NUCLEAR TEST SITE, NORTH KOREA - OCTOBER 24, 2016: Figure 3. Environmental shed remains adjacent to the vertical engine test stand. (Photo DigitalGlobe/38 North via Getty Images)
PUNGGYE-RI NUCLEAR TEST SITE, NORTH KOREA - OCTOBER 29, 2016: Figure 1C. Increased activity around the North Portal throughout October. Date: October 29, 2016. (Photo DigitalGlobe/38 North via Getty Images)
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GROWING TENSION

Soldiers such as Homestead and Radke have seen the facility take on increasing significance in global affairs in recent years, as tension with North Korea has escalated.

Most recently, U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un spent much of late 2017 and early 2018 trading threats of annihilation.

The soldiers said the high stakes are part of what makes them love the job, despite the remote location and the strain of weighing life-or-death options.

"That responsibility is what drives us," Radke told reporters. "It’s really what allows us to put in the time that we do up here. Knowing not just that you’re protecting the 300 million people in the United States, but also your family members, your friends across the United States."

The system became operational in 2004 under the direction of President George W. Bush. Now there are plans to add 20 more missiles to the 40 waiting silently just underground in Ft. Greely, with additional interceptors at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

The most recent test, in May, was successful. Colonel Kevin Kick, the commander of the 100th Missile Defense Brigade, which oversees the missile defense system, said it was constantly being improved.

"These ground-based interceptors in the system fielded right now at Ft. Greely and at Vandenberg Air Force Base are the best of what we’ve got," Kick said. "We’re ready, if called on, to respond to threats against our nation."

(Reporting by Justin Mitchell Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

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