Death from Above? The United States Must Address Air Defense Challenges

By: Patrick Savage, Columnist

Photo Credit: FighterSweep

United States ground forces have not been killed by enemy aircraft since 1953.[i] That record is certainly due in large part to the advantages in training and equipment afforded to the United States Air Force and the United States Army’s air defense units. However, it is also important to remember that the United States has essentially not fought an enemy air force that could seriously threaten its ground forces since World War II, a mindset that is to the US military’s detriment.

While the United States spent the Cold War training for a massive aerial confrontation with the Soviet Union that never came, it has found itself in combat against significantly less capable enemies following the breakup of the Soviet Union. The Iraqi Air Force and its air defense network were effectively knocked out two weeks into Operation Desert Storm’s air campaign in 1991, long before ground operations even began.[ii] The Yugoslav Air Force fared little better during Operation Allied Force in 1999, losing 80% of its fixed wing aircraft by the war’s end—despite NATO setbacks.[iii] And when the United States returned to Iraq in 2003 to topple Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi Air Force did not even attempt to fight back and simply ceased to exist.[iv]

The long-term result of these asymmetrical conflicts over the past twenty-five years has been a sense of aerial invulnerability on the part of the US military and a belief that air superiority in any conflict will be a given after years of having uncontested command of the sky.[v] Because of this confidence, the United States has neglected its air defense capabilities intended to protect front line ground troops from air attack, particularly, short-range air defense (SHORAD).

Following the United States’ virtual air dominance in Operation Desert Storm, the Army began to move away from expanding or even maintaining its SHORAD capabilities. Instead, the United States severely downsized that aspect of its air defense artillery (ADA) arm and focused primarily on countering threats from ballistic missiles over enemy aircraft. To that end, more resources went to procuring long-range, high altitude surface-to-air-missile (SAM) systems, such as the Patriot and Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) weapons systems.[vi] As of August 2015, the Army had only four active duty ADA battalions equipped with the smaller, more mobile Avenger SHORAD system, with another seven in the Army National Guard—compared to fifteen ADA battalions equipped with either Patriot or THAAD.[vii]

If the US edge in air combat was still virtually unopposed, this would be a minor issue—perhaps not even an issue at all. But, at the same time SHORAD has been neglected and air supremacy taken for granted, the US aircraft arsenal has aged and shrank and trained pilots are in short supply.[viii] Meanwhile, potential adversaries have been upgrading and expanding their air and air defense forces with new hardware. Advanced new long-range SAM systems like the Russian S-400 are key to a strategy of anti-access/area denial (A2/AD), which denies a state the ability to access and utilize forces within the theater of operations. Under this strategy, even if enemy aircraft cannot take on US aircraft eyeball-to-eyeball, highly accurate long-range missiles systems like Russia’s S-400 SAM can deny the United States and its allies air supremacy as well as air space access in large areas. Russia has already deployed these missiles in its Baltic Sea enclave of Kaliningrad, in Syria, in Armenia, and across European Russia.[ix] Russia is also reportedly selling the system to China and India—as well as US allies Turkey and Saudi Arabia.[x] [xi]

Once you remove air superiority, the importance of SHORAD becomes self-evident. Even if long-range ADA systems are deployed in the operating theater, these systems may prove ineffective in protecting ground forces from air attack. This is partly due to the fact they are dependent upon powerful radars projecting into an area to guide their missiles to their target, while SHORAD systems typically do not need radar to function and are capable of firing based on line-of-sight or other methods.[xii] [xiii] In addition, smaller, slower, low flying aircraft—such as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs)—could evade long-range SAM systems like Patriot even with radar coverage.[xiv]

Even though long-range systems such as Patriot can successfully counter hard-to-hit targets like a small UAV, utilizing such systems may not be sustainable financially or logistically. In March of this year, US Army General David Perkins recounted a story of an unnamed US ally using a Patriot missile, which has a price tag of $3 million, to take down a commercial quadcopter drone that cost about $200.[xv] While the Patriot system certainly was up to the task in this situation, the cost-benefit balance in terms of how much a Patriot costs and how long it takes to produce one simply does not add up.

In the past year, prioritizing the SHORAD situation has taken on a new urgency in the Army. Among a host of solutions discussed earlier this year, the Army is apparently developing a requirement for a new “maneuver SHORAD” vehicle to keep up with mobile, armored units and wants to quadruple the size of its SHORAD force to ensure every division and brigade has adequate air defense.[xvi] While various defense contractors have already offered up new systems to fill the gap in the short term, defense experts like James Tinsley point out that these interim systems are essentially just adaptations of existing weapons that may only be “sub optimized” for the SHORAD role.[xvii]

Developing and fielding new, more effective SHORAD systems should be an immediate priority for the Army in the face of new and emerging threats. More importantly, the military as a whole must address the factors that led to the current challenge it now faces regarding air superiority and defense, namely complacency, cutbacks, and wrongheaded assumptions. Changes in doctrine, procurement, and training are needed across all the services simultaneously to ensure US air superiority in a rapidly changing war-fighting environment.

[i] Peter Grier, “April 15, 1953,” Air Force Magazine, June 2011, http://www.airforcemag.com/MagazineArchive/Documents/2011/June 2011/0611april.pdf.

[ii] James A. Winnefeld, Dana J. Johnson, and Preston Niblack, A league of airmen: U.S. air power in the Gulf War (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 1994), 124-129.

[iii] Benjamin S. Lambeth, NATO’s Air War for Kosovo: A Strategic and Operational Assessment (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2001), 23, 61-65.

[iv] Daniel L. Haulman, “What Happened to the Iraqi Air Force?” Air Force Historical Research Agency, October 19, 2015, http://www.afhra.af.mil/Portals/16/documents/Airmen-at-War/Haulman-WhatHappenedIraqiAF.pdf?ver=2016-08-22-131410-023.

[v] David Barno and Nora Bensahel, “The Catastrophic Success of the U.S. Air Force,” War on the Rocks, May 21, 2016, accessed October 12, 2017, https://warontherocks.com/2016/05/the-catastrophic-success-of-the-u-s-air-force.

[vi] Gary Sheftick, “Short-range air defense back in demand,” United States Army, February 12, 2016, accessed October 12, 2017, https://www.army.mil/article/162389/Short_range_air_defense_back_in_demand.

[vii] Vincent R. Wiggins, Jr., “Balancing Air and Missile Defense to Better Support Maneuver,” Military Review, November 1, 2015.

[viii] Dan Lamothe, “With aging jets and a shortage of pilots, the Air Force weighs buying throwback ‘light-attack’ planes,” The Washington Post, February 28, 2017, accessed October 13, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/checkpoint/wp/2017/02/28/with-aging-jets-and-a-shortage-of-pilots-the-air-force-weighs-buying-throwback-light-attack-planes/.

[ix] Kathleen Weinberger, “Russian Anti-Access and Area Denial (A2AD) Range,” Institute for the Study of War, August 29, 2016, accessed October 13, 2017, http://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/russian-anti-access-and-area-denial-a2ad-range.

[x] “Exports of Russia’s S-400 missile systems,” TASS, October 9, 2017, , accessed October 13, 2017, http://tass.com/defense/969682.

[xi] Dmitry Solovyov, “Russia, Saudi Arabia close to sign S-400 missile deal: Ifax cites Putin aide,” Reuters, October 13, 2017, accessed October 13, 2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-russia-saudiarabia-missiles/russia-saudi-arabia-close-to-sign-s-400-missile-deal-ifax-cites-putin-aide-idUSKBN1CI0NU.

[xii] Wiggins.

[xiii] Sydney J. Freedberg Jr., “Achilles Heel Of Army Air & Missile Defense: The Network,” Breaking Defense, February 15, 2017, accessed October 13, 2017, https://breakingdefense.com/2017/02/achilles-heel-of-army-air-missile-defense-the-network/.

[xiv] David Hambling, “How Did Hezbollah’s Drone Evade a Patriot Missile?” Popular Mechanics, October 14, 2016, accessed October 13, 2017, http://www.popularmechanics.com/flight/drones/a22114/hezbollah-drone-israel-patriot-missile/.

[xv] Samuel Osborne, “Small drone ‘worth $200’ shot down by Patriot missile worth $3m, says US general,” The Independent, March 15, 2017, accessed October 14, 2017, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/small-drone-quadcopter-patriot-missile-shot-down-us-general-david-perkins-army-a7631466.html.

[xvi] Sydney J. Freedberg, Jr., “Army Races To Rebuild Short-Range Air Defense: New Lasers, Vehicles, Units,” Breaking Defense, February 21, 2017, accessed October 17, 2017, https://breakingdefense.com/2017/02/army-races-to-rebuild-short-range-air-defense-new-lasers-vehicles-units/.

[xvii] Jen Judson, “From Flying Tiger to Iron Dome, a SHORAD renaissance is underway,” Defense News, September 15, 2017, accessed October 14, 2017, https://www.defensenews.com/digital-show-dailies/dsei/2017/09/15/from-flying-tiger-to-iron-dome-a-shorad-renaissance-is-underway/.

One Reply to “Death from Above? The United States Must Address Air Defense Challenges”

  1. One system that I believe is and has been effective in an ADA role is the ground-based CWIS: C-RAM. It is not as mobile as a Stinger-based system, but the “rounds” are cheaper, it can easily be adapted to deal with small drones (here again, a Stinger may take out a 1000 dollar drone but it isn’t the best cost/benefit. A C-RAM might be able to take one out with just a dozen low-cost rounds). The C-RAM also has the advantage of being able to counter rockets, artillery, and mortars – which most SHORAD cannot do.

    And while it is now a bit large and clunky, and not the most mobile system, in principle it could be mounted on a more mobile platform such as a Stryker, M-113, or M-2/M-3 Bradley. The current C-RAM is a bit of an improvised arrangement; a dedicated C-RAM mobile platform should be able to shrink the system and improve its efficiencies and performance.

    The main disadvantage is it relies on radar, which both gives away its position and makes it vulnerable to anti-radiation missiles. For the latter, however, it may be able to defend itself with its own bullets.

    A C-RAM could not be the only SHORAD weapon. Infra-red missiles have several advantages: being manportable, being able to follow their targets beyond line-of-sight, and not broadcasting their location.

    The main problem with this “SHORAD” debate ( which is a valid one) is that the US military can quickly paralyze itself with capability requirements. SHORAD is not free financially, nor in terms of maneuver, personnel, or logistics support. Every SHORAD system will take the place of a troop carrier, anti-tank system, indirect fire weapon, C3ISR platrform, or electronic warfare system.

    The challenge is to weight these tradeoffs and determine what the right force mix and expenditure is, bearing in mind that it is impossible to predict the enemy. One potentially grave error is to once again preprare for a conventional war and then be burdened with an insurgency and occupation.

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