Despite some people’s questioning the scope of Gov. Sarah Palin’s duties as commander in chief of the Alaska National Guard, research shows that the vice-presidential nominee is uniquely at the tip of the spear of the nation’s defenses.
Considering the missions of the Alaska National Guard’s 176th Air Control Squadron and the 49th Missile Defense Battalion, Palin’s remark to Katie Couric that provoked so much flak in the blogosphere and on the airwaves makes perfect sense.
“When you consider even national security issues with Russia, as [Prime Minister Vladimir] Putin rears his head and comes into the airspace of the United States of America, where, where do they go? It’s Alaska,” Palin said during the interview with CBS News’ Couric.
Instead of apologizing for exaggerating the strategic importance of her state, Palin could have added that any of Russia’s encroaching bombers would be intercepted and any incoming missiles would be vaporized — all courtesy of the Alaska National Guard.
Commanding the Alaska National Guard is a significant job, military officials opine, according to a recent report in the Los Angeles Times.
Overseeing a state National Guard is a chief executive role with real management responsibilities, said Mark Allen, a spokesman for the National Guard Bureau, the federal office that coordinates state National Guards.
“I don’t think people should think it is a casual relationship, or is like the king putting on the medals,” Allen said. “It is not that at all.”
Palin’s Alaska National Guard, and more particularly, the Alaska Army National Guard with its Defense Battalion, is unique in all the country in that its job includes staffing a key part of the strategic U.S. missile defense system. Another smaller missile interceptor facility is at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, backed up by ship-borne picket interceptor systems in the Pacific Ocean.
Palin is entrusted with important oversight of 49th, but obviously “no launch authority,” Maj. Gen. Craig Campbell, the service commander of the Alaska National Guard, recently told the Anchorage Daily News. She also gets extensively briefed on military issues and homeland security, he said.
Under the protocols, Palin retains command authority over the 4,200-member Alaska National Guard whenever the Guard responds to in-state natural disasters and civic emergencies, Campbell said. She does, however, surrenders command authority when her forces are federalized or sent overseas.
On Palin’s watch, the Alaska National Guard has contributed heavily to the Pentagon’s global war on terror. About 80 percent of its personnel have been deployed overseas since Sept. 11, 2001, in the largest mobilization of the Alaska National Guard since World War II, Campbell said.
The 4,200-member Alaska National Guard consists of the Alaska Army National Guard and the Alaska Air National Guard. Within the former is the 49th Missile Defense Battalion that operates Alaska’s vital Fort Greely, a first line of defense for intercepting enemy missiles.
The battalion is part of the 100th Missile Defense Brigade based in Colorado Springs, Colo. Its mission is to operate the command-and-control center and provide constant security for the large quiver of ground-based interceptor missiles at Greely. The missiles are worth between $30 million and $40 million apiece.
Greely’s location at the northwestern tip of the U.S. would allow its interceptor missiles to respond quickly to incoming ballistic missiles, especially from North Korea, China, Russia, and Iran.
Palin’s role as commander of the state’s Guard includes keeping in contact with the members. Last year, Palin flew overseas to visit 500 members of the Alaska Army National Guard who were stationed for an extended period in Northern Kuwait. She also made an official visit to the U.S. military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, to visit wounded Alaskans, including regular Army troops based at Fort Richardson.
Meanwhile, Palin’s Alaska Air National Guard, with 1,946 members, is involved in an extraordinary number of search-and-rescue missions, compared with counterparts around the country.
Since Palin became governor in December 2006, the Alaska Air Guard has flown 521 missions, saving 200 lives and assisting with the rescue of 77 more people, said Kalei Brooks, a spokeswoman for the Alaska Department of Military and Veterans Affairs.
“Our rescue squadron is the busiest in the nation,” Brooks told the Los Angeles Times.
The Alaska Air National Guard’s 176th Wing, based at Kulis ANG Base in Anchorage, with additional units at Elmendorf AFB, Eielson AFB and Fort Richardson, also has intercepted Russian flights that intruded into U.S. territory.
“The 176th Air Control Squadron maintained North American air sovereignty by detecting, monitoring and escorting 22 Russian bombers from within its area of operations,” according to a statement from the wing.
Above and beyond the Guard units, Palin has command oversight over the 49th Military Police Brigade, formerly known as the Alaska State Defense Force.
The military police brigade was primarily created as a backup for the National Guard. If the Army and Air Guards are committed already, such as being deployed overseas, the defense force stands ready to work with state and local emergency management agencies in Homeland Security, disaster assistance, planning, exercises, and operations in response to and recovery from disasters.
Officially, the mission of the 49th is to mobilize “on occasions deemed appropriate by the governor, to provide military assistance to civil and military authorities for Homeland Security and in the preservation of life, property, and public safety.”
Wholly separate from the National Guard, the unit reports to the governor.
Over the years, the 49th Military Police Brigade has been activated for disaster response and recovery assistance. Since the 9-11 terrorist attacks, the 49th has been providing classified security missions to portions of the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline, Alaska Railroad, and Alaska’s boat harbors and ports.
Meanwhile, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, the 49th Missile Defense Battalion seeks incoming missiles at the “midcourse phase,” outside the Earth’s atmosphere.
In the event of an attack, battalion members would use sophisticated surveillance and radar systems to track the missile through its initial boost phase, Department of Defense officials say. If the missile reached the midcourse phase, the Alaska Guardsmen would await the order to engage it.
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