Army rebuilding short-range air defense

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In the Stinger Dome, Staff Sgt. Ivan Peralta guides Sgt. 1st Class Arianna Cook as she aims a shoulder-fired Stinger missile at an enemy helicopter projected on the circular wall of the simulation center. A five-week class in the Man-Portable Air Defense System, or MANPADS, is being taught to infantry and armor Soldiers in a stop-gap effort to protect maneuver units from enemy aircraft, drones and cruise missiles. (Army photograph by Gary Sheftick)

The Army is now standing up short-range air defense units, known as SHORAD battalions, and offering a five-week pilot Stinger course for Soldiers in maneuver units.

It’s part of a critical effort to defend maneuver units against the threat of aircraft, drones and cruise missiles, said Col. Mark A. Holler, commandant of the Air Defense Artillery School at Fort Sill, Okla.

Most of the SHORAD battalions in the active component were deactivated a decade ago because the U.S. Army needed this force structure to grow maneuver brigade combat teams for counter-insurgency operations, Holler said.

The Army is now reshaping its capability and capacity to conduct large-scale combat operations against a near-peer adversary like Russia or China, he said, so SHORAD units are once again needed. He added the Army was given a “wake-up call” when it observed the conflict in Ukraine.

Bringing back Avengers
In the 1990s, every Army division had a SHORAD battalion to protect it. In 2017, none of the 10 active divisions had one.

Last year, the Army re-established an active SHORAD battalion in Germany. The 5th Battalion of the 4th Air Defense Artillery Regiment was stood up with Avengers — modified Humvees with a turret on top and two pods of Stinger missiles.

Sgt. 1st Class Arianna Cook offloads a Stinger Missile from an Avenger pod so that it can be fired off the shoulder as a Man-Portable Air Defense System. MANPADS is used under degraded conditions if the Avenger cannot fire due to a cyber attack or electronic warfare. (Army photograph by Gary Sheftick)

The Avengers were first used by the Army in 1990, but in recent years most had been relegated to the National Guard or stored in depots.

A total of 72 Avengers were pulled out of mothballs last year from Letterkenny Army Depot in Pennsylvania, Holler said. Half are now with the 5-4 ADA and the others are ready for issue at a pre-positioned equipment depot in Germany.

Growing the force
The plan is to eventually have 10 SHORAD battalions again to defend maneuver units and other critical assets within each of the Army’s divisions, Holler said. These will be stood up incrementally over time, he explained, with the next four between now and 2024.

Eventually these battalions will upgrade from Avengers to the new Maneuver SHORADs on a Stryker platform with two hellfire missiles, a 30mm chain gun, a 7.62 machine gun and four Stinger missiles. The first M-SHORAD prototypes are expected to roll off the assembly line in late July.

The Army is also planning to stand up Indirect Fire Protection Capability, or IFPC units, in both the active component and National Guard to defend fixed and semi-fixed assets at corps and division-level, Holler said.

These battalions, currently fielded with the Land-based Phalanx Weapons System, or LPWS, used to counter rockets, artillery and mortars — also known as the C-RAM system — will eventually transition to a new IFPC capability as well, he said.

Soldiers quadrupling
The Army currently has 519 positions for Soldiers with the 14P air and missile defense crewmember military occupational specialty. That number is expected to quadruple over the next five years, said Sgt. 1st Class Arianna Cook, senior career advisor for 14Ps at the ADA School.

“We will have one of the fastest-growing MOSs in the Army,” Cook said.

Two years ago, the ADA School had only one 14P instructor and most of the students were National Guard Soldiers, as the Guard kept seven Avenger battalions, she said. Now there’s eight 14P instructors at the school just for the new Man-Portable Air Defense System or MANPADS Stinger course.

“We’re making a comeback,” Cook said. “That’s kind of where we’re at with our MOS.”

MANPADS course
Maneuver forces had not seen short-range air defense in a long time, Cook said. So the first goal of the new course was to show Infantry and Cavalry troops what SHORAD looks like, she explained.

“I spent two years at Fort Benning with 19 kilos, with tankers … none of them had ever heard of [short-range] air defense,” Cook said. “All they knew was Patriot launchers.”

So a MANPADS pilot course was developed in late 2017. The focus was on creating two-man Stinger teams for units rotating into Germany or Korea as an interim solution to provide short-range air defense.

Staff Sgt. Ivan Peralta hands a Stinger missile to Sgt. 1st Class Arianna Cook so that she can load it into an Avenger pod on top of a modified Humvee. Seventy-two Avengers were pulled out of mothballs last year from Letterkenny Army Depot, Penn., to field two new short-range air defense battalions until the new M-SHORAD Strykers are fielded. (Army photograph by Gary Sheftick)

“You can’t flip the switch overnight and fill a critical gap,” Cook said.

But since the Army has determined that SHORAD is a critical gap, the ADA School is attempting to fix it as soon as possible with the five-week course.

So far, six brigades have sent 156 Soldiers through the course and the graduates have been awarded the A5 additional skill identifier, or ASI. This means they are certified to operate the Stinger MANPADS missile launcher in two-man teams to defend their unit against enemy aircraft.

The course includes practice in the Stinger Dome where the teams simulate firing at enemy helicopters that fly across terrain on the circular walls. It also includes identifying friend or foe aircraft, or IFF programming with the Sentinel radar that maneuver units have. And it includes instruction on visual aircraft recognition. The course concludes with a tactical employment practical exercise.

Soldiers have completed the course so far from the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment, the 173rd Airborne Brigade, the 3rd Brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division, the 1st Brigade of the 1st Infantry Division, 1st Brigade of the 1st Cavalry Division and 210th Fires Brigade.

What maneuver troops learn at the five-week course is termed “degraded” Stinger operations, Cook said, because firing the missiles from an Avenger system is more accurate.

Upgraded Avengers
The Avengers have multiple optics, range-finders and a forward-looking infrared receiver or FLIR monitor. It’s difficult to see some of the smaller drones with the naked eye, Cook said, whereas radars can pick them up and direct the Avenger turret to lock onto them.

When the Avengers were pulled out of depot storage last year, some were modified with a new “Slew-to-Cue” Avenger Targeting Console. This enables the turret to automatically turn and lock onto targets provided by remote radars, Cook said.

“A Soldier still needs to pull the trigger though,” she said.

The remainder of the Avengers that didn’t get Slew-to-Cue last year will receive it as part of an ongoing two-phase Modification Service Life Extension Program known as SLEP, said Holler. All Avenger consoles should be upgraded by the end of September 2020, he said.

The second phase of the SLEP upgrade includes installation of a Mode 5 Identification Friend or Foe, a new fire-control computer, and converting analog communications equipment in the Avengers to digital communications. It also includes a new air-conditioning and heating unit and a new .50-caliber machine gun. The Phase II upgrades are scheduled to begin in the 4th quarter of fiscal year 2020 and continue through fiscal 2023, Holler said.

Along with the battalion of Avengers that stood up last year in Germany, the active Army also has four separate Avenger batteries: one in Korea, one at Fort Sill, one at Fort Campbell, Ky.; and one with the Global Response Force at Fort Bragg, N.C.

In addition to Avenger upgrades, proximity fuses are being installed in some of the Stinger missiles, Holler said. Stingers with proximity-fuse warheads will have greater lethality against small drones and unmanned aerial vehicles, he explained.

Cook said Soldiers who hold the 14P MOS actually need to know how to operate three different systems: Avengers, Stinger shoulder launchers and the C-RAM system that shoots up to 90 rounds per second at incoming rockets and mortars.

“We’re one of the only MOS’s in the Army that has to understand and operate three platforms,” Cook said.

When the new M-SHORADs come off the assembly line, 14P Soldiers will need to know four platforms, she said.

“It’s a massively-growing MOS,” she added.