US Army needs short range air defenses in every division to counter enemy drones and missiles and they will need updating with lasers, microwaves, new missiles and sensors

As Russia and other adversaries stock up on drones, rockets, and missiles, the US Army is building up defenses to shoot them down. But that Short-Range Air Defense force has been devastated by a decade of cuts. The service’s plan to revive SHORAD involves

  • deploying to Europe about 50 more of its current Avenger systems, Humvees mounting multiple Stinger missiles;
  • developing requirements for new “Maneuver SHORAD” equipment — such as lasers mounted on armored vehicles to keep up with frontline units — for which an Initial Capabilities Document is expected out by April;
  • and ultimately quadrupling the SHORAD force — if funding can be found — to put air defenders in every Army division and combat brigade, both active-duty and National Guard.

To combat long-range, high-flying ballistic missiles, the armed services have an array of complementary, overlapping, and extremely expensive systems, from the Ground-Based Interceptors (GBI) defending the US itself, to Terminal High-Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) and the Navy Standard Missile family, to the celebrated Patriot. To protect frontline units from low-flying threats, however, the Army relies almost entirely on Stinger missiles, both the shoulder-fired version made famous in Afghanistan and the Humvee-mounted version called Avenger.

The Army also has some ex-Navy gatling guns, ship defense systems converted to counter terrorist rockets and drones. Indeed, Counter-UAS (Unmanned Aerial Systems) has become a major effort. But with service leaders singling out Russia as the top threat, frontline Army units need air defense against the whole arsenal of a modern state: drones, yes, but also helicopter gunships, attack jets, rocket artillery, and even low-flying cruise missiles.

Back in the Cold War, the Army could meet this threat with a whole arsenal of air defense weapons. As late as 2004, there were 26 SHORAD battalions in the Army, said Brady. Today, it’s down to nine. Just two of them are regular active-duty units, the other seven in the National Guard.

On the future battlefield, if you stay in one place longer than two or three hours, you will be dead,” Army Chief of Staff Mark Milley warned another AUSA gathering last fall.

What does this mean for air defense? Instead of relying on big, stationary anti-aircraft batteries, maneuvering units must bring mobile air defenders with them. That’s why each division needs its own air defense battalion and each combat brigade needs its own SHORAD battery. Those batteries had better be able to keep up with their divisions and brigades as they go in harm’s way, which means the Army must develop what it’s calling “Maneuver SHORAD.”

As for weapons, both lasers and high-powered microwaves are definitely on the table for the Maneuver SHORAD Initial Capabilities Document (ICD) now being reviewed, said Col. O’Neill. While such directed-energy weapons are in their infancy, they could keep firing as long as they have electrical power, making them an attractive alternative to limited supplies of expensive missiles like the Stinger, especially against large numbers of low-performance targets like drones and unguided rockets. An armored helicopter like the Russian Mi-24 Hind, however, might be too tough a target for lasers with today’s power levels. The best bet on the battlefield is a mix of complementary technologies, not a single silver bullet, so the Initial Capabilities Document is also looking hard at guns and missiles.

The Army has had successful tests of the AIM-9X, originally fired by fighter jets but modified to launch from a ground-based system, the Indirect Fire Protection Capability. The basic, missile-armed IFPC will enter service ca. 2020, with future upgrades like lasers to follow.