The US military faces an aerial threat that the Air Force cannot stop. This is how he tries to defend himself


  • The devastating use of drones during the recent war between Armenia and Azerbaijan has highlighted the evolution of modern air threats, such as drones, in recent years.
  • This is a particular problem for the US military, which reduced its air defense arsenal after the Cold War and is now attempting to rebuild it to counter new and emerging threats.
  • Visit the Business Insider homepage for more stories.

The recent six-week war between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the disputed Karabakh region left nearly 6,000 soldiers and civilians on both sides dead and hundreds of pieces of military equipment destroyed.

Azeri drones caused much of this destruction. Hours of drone footage showed devastating precision strikes against Armenian targets and reignited debate over the tank’s future.

The U.S. military was not a part of the conflict, but it was a reminder of a disturbing truth the service has known for at least a decade: its anti-aircraft (AA) defenses are sorely lacking.

Air defense arsenal

A MIM-72 Chaparral.
The American army

The collapse of the Soviet Union reduced the prospect of a war of the great powers. In the absence of serious air threats, the army got rid of several of its air defense units and directed its resources elsewhere.

As a result, its air defense arsenal, especially ground AA platforms like Short Range Air Defense Systems (SHORAD), is now much smaller.

Three of the Army’s main ground AA systems – the MIM-23 Hawk, MIM-72 Chaparral, and M163 VADS – were retired between 1991 and 1998. From 2004 to 2018, the US military reduced the number of SHORAD battalions from 26 to nine.

In 2004, the last armored AA system, the M6 ​​Linebacker, was phased out. Today, the Army’s only air defense systems are the Shoulder-Launched Stinger Portable Air Defense System (MANPAD), the AN / TWQ-1 Avenger, the MIM-104 Patriot, and the High Altitude Area Terminal. Defense (THAAD). system.

The Stinger and the Avenger – the Avenger is just a wheeled launch system with eight Stingers – are designed to engage aircraft up to about 10,000 feet. The Patriot and THAAD are designed to intercept planes and missiles up to 73,000 feet for the Patriot and up to 93 miles for the THAAD.

Faster and cheaper threats

US soldiers near an area of ​​residence destroyed by Iranian missiles at Ain al-Asad air base in Iraq, January 13, 2020.
Photo AP / Qassim Abdul-Zahra

The US Air Force’s fighter jets have been tasked with eliminating threats that these systems can’t hit, especially other enemy fighters and bombers. They have done well against the vastly inferior air forces of Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yugoslavia, but the threats are changing.

“Our capabilities against enemy aircraft are generally very good. Mark Cancian, senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and former Marine Corps colonel, told Insider.

But the biggest air threats of the future are not enemy fighter-bombers. “The two main ones are drones and cruise missiles,” Cancian said, adding that “there are very real concerns” about these threats.

In January, Iran launched more than a dozen cruise missiles at two Iraqi bases housing US personnel. None of the missiles were shot down or intercepted, and their impact left more than 100 servicemen with mild traumatic brain injuries.

It was one of several missile and drone attacks in the Middle East in recent years.

Drones and cruise missiles are smaller, cheaper, and operate at lower altitudes than jets, making it easier for adversaries to use them in large numbers. They can also be very fast – especially cruise missiles – making their interception with Air Force fighters not only difficult but economically unsustainable.

Much like the Air Force, the Army is reluctant to use more sophisticated AA weapons against targets this small, inexpensive, and often difficult to hit. Military officials have said that using a $ 3 million Patriot missile against a drone that costs a few hundred dollars is not “good economic bargaining.”

“The problem with drones is that they tend to be very cheap, so there’s no point firing a $ 100,000 missile at a $ 1,000 drone,” Cancian said. “You really need something else. ”

Rival investment

Buk M2 air defense missile
Buk M2 air defense missile systems march through Moscow.
REUTERS / Sergei Karpukhin

While the United States has decommissioned its anti-aircraft defenses on the ground, its rivals are investing heavily in it – largely because of the dominance of American air power.

In addition to larger systems like the S-300 and S-400, Russia has a number of tracked and wheeled AA platforms – including the Buk and Tor missile systems, the 2K22 Tunguska, and the Pantsir S- 1. In addition to missiles, the Tunguska and Pantsir have 30mm automatic cannons capable of hitting low-flying targets. The systems together create a layered defense.

Russia is also developing a new AA artillery system, the Derivatsiya-PVO. Designed specifically to shoot down drones and cruise missiles, the system is armed with a 57mm main gun capable of firing smart munitions that can explode in mid-flight.

Russia claims its AA systems have repelled dozens of drone attacks on its bases in Syria this year, after suffering such attacks for the first time in 2018. Russian AA systems don’t always triumph over drones and missiles , but Moscow’s continued investment in systems gave it an advantage.

China also has a number of AA ground defenses, including the HQ-9 medium to long range AA system, as well as the Type 95 and Type 09 self-propelled AA artillery systems.

Layered Defense

US Army Stryker Vehicle Anti-Drone Laser Defense System
A Stryker equipped with a high-energy mobile laser capable of shooting down a drone using a 5 kW laser at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, in April 2017.
(Photo credit: C. Todd Lopez)

That’s not to say that the US military isn’t tackling what has been called a “modern-day missile shortage.” In fact, it is the opposite.

The Army Asymmetric Warfare Group has begun to develop counter-drone training, technology and tactics in response to ISIS’s use of small drones, and while the AWG is disabled, the air and missile defense were among the top priorities for the military in 2020 and are therefore expected to remain for the next four years.

The military has begun commissioning a new interim system, the IM-SHORAD Stryker, for its immediate AA needs. The Indirect Fire Protection Capability System (IFPC), armed with the newest AIM-9X Sidewinder missile, is also expected to enter service in the coming years. Soldiers in Texas are testing Israel’s Iron Dome system, developed with American technology, as an interim defense against cruise missiles.

The military is also exploring long-term solutions like rail guns, directed energy weapons and jamming technology. These will take longer to develop and deploy, but it is clear that the military is prioritizing air and missile defense and intends to counter future air threats with a variety of systems.

“It is not a single technology or a single set of technologies that will be implemented. Cancian said. “It will be a series of technologies. ”

These systems will have to work together to prevent what the military sees coming.

“Where the military is going is multi-layered defense,” Gen. James McConville, the military’s top military officer, told lawmakers in March. “We want to be able to link every sensor to the shooter. ”


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