The New Threat: Air and Missile Defense for Brigade Combat Teams
A mechanized battalion task force secures a river crossing while engineers construct bridging sites. Meanwhile, an enemy unmanned aerial system hovers undetected just above the trees, sending video to a nearby control station. The enemy ground controller relays the information to a command node, which coordinates to launch two cruise missiles from a ship several hundred kilometers away. An enemy fighter aircraft also receives the target location and plots an attack route.
The battalion receives word from the brigade cavalry squadron that an unmanned aerial system is likely operating nearby, based on intelligence gathered from assigned Prophet signals intelligence teams. The battalion alerts Bradley sections assigned as air scouts to scan for aerial platforms. They then visually acquire and destroy the UAS with their 25 mm cannons. Meanwhile, cavalry scouts and Prophet teams fix the location of the ground control station at a named area of interest and call for fire from an M777 howitzer battery.
At the same time, an air defense artillery platoon engagement operations cell with the brigade tactical command post acquires two cruise missiles and the fixed-wing aircraft from Sentinel radars. A multimission launcher fires AIM-9X missiles over the river crossing and intercepts the cruise missiles several kilometers away. Another launcher, 15 kilometers from the engagement operations cell, engages and destroys the fixed-wing aircraft before it releases ordnance on the crossing site.
This scenario provides a snapshot of future threats against Army formations. American forces have operated free from fixed- and rotary-wing attack for decades. But technology proliferation, combined with doctrines intended to deny the full range of U.S. capabilities access to contested areas, challenge fundamental assumptions about the joint force. Air supremacy is no longer a given, and emerging technologies demonstrate the potential to operate outside the detection capabilities of U.S. platforms even when we retain air superiority. The Army’s challenge is to adapt to this operating environment.
The Army has the ability today to mitigate the threat of small and medium Group 1 and 2 UAS through the application of Army doctrine and effective employment of current organic capabilities. In the future, we will have the capability to defeat the large through largest Group 3-5 UAS and cruise missiles. The joint counter-air framework in Joint Publication 3-01: Countering Air and Missile Threats provides the structure for adaptation by focusing efforts on active defense, passive defense and attack operations. Traditional security operations and electronic warfare, when combined with lessons learned defeating enemy networks, are directly applicable to the counter-UAS fight. Finally, the multimission launcher enabled by the Integrated Air and Missile Defense Battle Command System will provide the most capable short-range air defense in the Army’s history.
The Current Situation
The new threat consists of traditional rotary- and fixed-wing aircraft, now equipped with weapons release ranges beyond the reach of Stinger missiles. Additionally, cruise missile proliferation allows adversaries to target support areas and other force concentrations. Finally, UAS proliferation poses two distinct threats to the Army. Group 1 and 2 systems can be used as reconnaissance and airborne improvised explosive devices.
These systems are commercially available, and their small size with minimal heat signatures challenge radar detection and infrared acquisition. Despite their ubiquity, their main use will remain surveillance since their limited payload would have a comparable effect as a single mortar round, rendering them ineffective against an Army formation conducting offensive operations.
Groups 3-5 are comparable to U.S. systems in many respects for surveillance capabilities and lethal attacks. Recent operations in Iraq, Syria and Ukraine provide examples of how adversaries can employ these systems against ground forces.
U.S. Army short-range air defense capability in the active component consists of four Avenger batteries: two batteries organic to composite air defense artillery battalions; and two batteries assigned to the counter-rocket, artillery and mortar battalions. The Army National Guard has seven Avenger battalions, which execute the enduring national capital defense mission and support other homeland defense missions. Brigade combat teams and divisions maintain air defense and airspace management cells.
Four of the Army’s 15 Patriot battalions are forward stationed, while the remaining 11 battalions execute three enduring U.S. Central Command deployments and Global Response Force missions. Although Patriot battalions have capability against cruise missiles and fixed-wing aircraft, this force has become primarily focused on the tactical ballistic missile threat.
The Army’s challenge is to adapt and maintain advantages in light of the rapidly evolving air threat. The joint counter-air framework provides a structure for this adaptation with offensive and defensive counter-air operations, as outlined in Joint Publication 3-01. Offensive counter-air includes attack operations (most applicable to Army operations), along with suppression of enemy air defenses, fighter escorts and fighter sweeps. Defensive counter-air operations are divided into active and passive air and missile defense, both of which apply to Army operations.
Attack operations defeat threats before they launch. Brigade combat teams are uniquely qualified to execute these missions and are arguably the optimal formations to defeat Group 1 and 2 UAS. Security operations are the cornerstone of attack operations since the counter-UAS fight is a counter-reconnaissance fight.
Given the limited range of Group 1 and 2 UAS ground control stations, adversaries operating these systems must operate inside a brigade’s area of operations. Brigades disrupt enemy UAS operations by developing named and targeted areas of interest, leveraging organic signals intelligence capabilities, and maintaining control of the area of operations through patrolling. Cavalry squadrons operating with the brigade military intelligence company, electronic warfare assets and field artillery battalions are ideally postured to win the offensive counter-air fight.
Defensive counter-air operations consist of active and passive defense. Passive defense measures include detection and warning (such as rocket, artillery, mortar-warn), camouflage, concealment, hardening, dispersion and mobility. While some of these skills have atrophied, they can be trained in home station and combat training centers. Most passive defense meas-ures are the disciplined adherence to field standards. Reintroducing modern air threats to the training centers will serve as the forcing function for passive defense and provide commanders immediate feedback on effective implementation.
Joint Publication 3-01 defines active defense as “direct defensive action taken to destroy, nullify or reduce the effectiveness of air and missile threats.” For short-range air defense operations, the Army divides this into non-dedicated air defense and dedicated air defense artillery assets. Non-dedicated air defense is also known as Combined Arms for Air Defense, as outlined in Army Techniques Publication 3-01.8.
Bradleys, tanks, Apaches and nearly every non-missile weapon can defeat Groups 1 and 2 UAS, which are unlikely to be acquired by Stinger missiles due to their low heat signature. While this requires additional training and development of specific aerial gunnery tables such as those conducted by divisional short-range air defense battalions prior to 2003, these simple solutions can be implemented immediately across the force.
For dedicated air defense artillery forces, the Army faces a dramatic force structure challenge. Geographic combatant commanders’ demand for Patriots exceeds inventory, limiting the acceptability of shifting this force structure to short-range air defense. Since a full exploration of force structure exceeds the scope of this article, we will instead discuss emerging capabilities available to the Army for employment as determined in future iterations of the Total Army Analysis process.
The most significant of these emerging capabilities is the multimission launcher (MML), developed for the Indirect Fire Protection Capability program. The MML is part of Increment 2, Block 1, focused on defense against UAS and cruise missiles. (Enhanced counter-rocket, artillery and mortar capability is included in Block 2.)
The platoon is the MML unit of employment and consists of four launchers with a total of 60 missiles. The MML leverages existing Sentinel radars, existing interceptors (the AIM-9X Sidewinder in Block 1) and the Integrated Air and Missile Defense Battle Command System (IBCS) as the Mission Command system. This use of existing major end items provides significant risk reduction and allows the Army to “plug and play” MML units into existing formations. Brigade combat team air defense and airspace management cells will eventually receive IBCS engagement operations cells, enabling them to enter the joint kill chain and provide additional force employment options.
The MML provides unique employment opportunities in support of Army forces. During testing at White Sands Missile Range, N.M., in 2016, an MML firing AIM-9X missiles defeated cruise missile targets at distances nearly four times farther than a Stinger missile. The MML received its radar feed from a Sentinel operating nearly 10 km away, while the platoon engagement operations cell was located at a comparable distance from both the radar and the launcher. The MML also fired a Longbow Hellfire missile to defeat a UAS, along with four other existing missiles (Tamir, Stinger, Stinger with proximity fuse and the Miniature Hit-to-Kill missile).
Concept of Operations
Earlier, we described how a counter-air fight might unfold for a river crossing. The concept of operations for this mission would need to address attack operations, passive defense and active. By applying the joint counter-air framework, the operation might be described as follows:
Attack operations are a subset of security operations, employing the cavalry squadron and Prophet teams to find, fix and defeat enemy UAS ground stations in conjunction with indirect fires. Passive air defense measures prescribe actions to reduce aerial observation (cover, camouflage, concealment and deception), reduce the effects of attack (harden key assets, disperse formations, establish redundancy for key nodes) and provide early warning to units.
Active defense measures outline hostile criteria, provide airspace deconfliction procedures to protect friendly systems, and outline engagement authorities deconflicted with the inherent authorities of the joint force air component commander.
For non-dedicated air defense, the plan tasks specific units as air guards and describes fire control measures to restrict weapons effects to enemy platforms.
Dedicated air defense artillery consists of a Sentinel section, brigade air defense and airspace management cell, and an MML platoon with four launchers arrayed. Two Sentinel radars provide early warning and fire control data for the MML platoon.
The Army has a proven ability to adapt in the face of new threats, and the current evolution of air threats is no different. The first step is to integrate counter-air attack operations into the ongoing revitalization of Army security operations in order to disrupt UAS operations. Next, the Army must develop and resource aerial gunnery to provide non-dedicated air defense against Group 1 and 2 UAS platforms. Simultaneous to these efforts, the combat training centers must replicate modern air threats to force passive air defense and provide a live threat for training offensive and active defense.
The Army’s adaptation to aerial threats must address short-range air defense units in support of maneuver forces. The multimission launcher enabled by the Integrated Air and Missile Defense Battle Command System will provide a dramatic increase in short-range air defense capability within the next five years against cruise missiles and larger UAS. The Army should explore options to accelerate this program so this capability can be provided to maneuver commanders sooner. Finally, the future of short-range air defense must include comprehensive force structure reviews.