No business is organized perfectly, not even the most tremendous fighting force in the world. By no fault of its own, the U.S. military is structured in a way that units of the same branch follow similar structural guidelines to perform tasks. By design, multiple branches will employ overlapping capabilities.
There are many reasons why this is done, but does it work for every branch, such as the Army’s air defense artillery (ADA)?
In short, it’s debatable. Enemy aerial capabilities are a threat to every service, requiring them to maintain air defense capabilities. However, the Army’s air and missile defense assets are prominent players in air defense fights, requiring platforms like the Patriot weapon system and Terminal High Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) system to be reserved for strategic emplacement.
Likewise, air defense must be a layered effort to successfully defeat a range of emerging and advanced threats. The Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force and Space Force all have a critical function in this role, making it imperative to spread air defense capabilities throughout the military. So, why would anyone argue against the current air defense force structure, specifically concerning the Army’s role with ADA?
Army’s ADA Function
One issue is the Army’s mission and the capabilities of ADA. The Army’s function (in general) is to close distance, engage and defeat the enemy to dominate the land domain and sustain land dominance. Looking at current and future ADA platforms, the branch’s mission is essentially split between high-altitude and low-altitude engagement capabilities intended to support the Army’s mission. ADA provides advanced active and passive air defense, and its two major platforms cannot truly support maneuver commanders in a deep fight.
Furthermore, Patriot and THAAD are inherently joint platforms, which obligates the Army to operate in a joint environment, usually with the Air Force.
At the lower spectrum, the Maneuver Short-Range Air Defense system and the Avenger air defense system are more tailored to supporting maneuvering commanders in a large-scale combat operation. The delineation in the mission set is arguably enough to consider separating high to medium air defense (Patriot and THAAD) from the Army and keeping short-range air defense, or divisional ADA (Maneuver Short-Range Air Defense; Avenger; Counter-Rocket, Artillery and Mortar; and Iron Dome), in the Army.
One method to change the organizational structure of air defense would be to place tactical missile defense under a U.S. Army Air and Missile Defense Command. Next, place strategic missile defense systems under the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command, the U.S. Strategic Command or the Joint Functional Component Command for Integrated Missile Defense. This alignment would consolidate command and control of missile defense capabilities, realign their mission task and purpose, and seamlessly integrate air defense capabilities into the U.S. missile defense layers outlined in the National Defense Strategy.
In short, the Army can realign its organizational structure by separating the “air defense” and “missile defense” in air and missile defense. ADA is divided into subgroups tailored for the short-range tactical fight against rockets, artillery, mortar and some fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft; and the strategic battle against tactical ballistic missiles, intercontinental ballistic missiles, hypersonic glide vehicles and hypersonic cruise missiles. The tactical assets can stay aligned under the Army’s air and missile defense command structure to support the maneuver fight.
The strategic assets, including Ground-based Midcourse Defense, are sent to Space and Missile Defense Command. Strategic Command, through its Joint Functional Component Command for Integrated Missile Defense, can execute its command and control over the strategic assets, mimicking how U.S. Special Operations Command operates with combatant commands. The Joint Functional Component Command for Integrated Missile Defense would synchronize strategic missile defense planning, conduct ballistic missile defense operations and support combatant commands and other agencies to deter and defend U.S. national interests against ballistic missile attacks.
Impacts on doctrine, organization, training, materiel, leadership and education, personnel, facilities and policy are inevitable. Organizationally, there would be a transfer of Army forces to a joint command (Strategic Command), forcing the Army’s various Air and Missile Defense commands to lose a preponderance of their assigned forces.
Likewise, the Army Air and Missile Defense commands’ missions will be strictly focused on tactical maneuver operations over the regional defense mission. As a result, the Army’s Air and Missile Defense commands’ structure will support task organization for divisional air defense assets. The separation presents tangible gains. The Fires Center of Excellence could narrow its focus and integrate its train back into the maneuver fight. Both strategic and tactical air defense could easily synchronize efforts across joint forces, preventing duplicated programs and stressing ADA soldier tasking.
Realistically, the above solution is a long shot, and the more likely approach is pushing the air defense artillery branch into the Air Force or Space Force. With emerging threats, capabilities and requirements, the future of air defense’s force structure is uncertain.
The next National Defense Authorization Act to be passed by Congress will address additional ADA requirements. Next, the acquisition/research development, test and evaluation process is too complex and contractually binding to hand over to DoD’s Missile Defense Agency. For example, Congress has been asking the Army to take over the THAAD program for years. However, the Missile Defense Agency and contractors have a firm grasp over the operational deployment of the system. Not to mention that giving away all high- to medium-altitude air defense assets contradicts the Army’s modernization priorities and efforts toward a more interoperable force.
Does it really matter if these platforms are under one roof? That is hard to say. However, regardless of ownership, there must be a layered defense due to the competitive advantage it provides. The crux of ADA is the benefit of ADA: It is inherently joint, giving the Army critical connection to the Theater Air-Ground System, which comprises multiple systems that orchestrate the planning and execution of air-ground operations.
Overall, the branch is a priority, not only for the Army, but for the joint community. Whichever service maintains organizational control of the branch will continue to support the joint fight.
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Maj. Danny Lee Rumley Jr. is an air defense artillery officer studying at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Previously, he commanded a Patriot missile defense system fire unit and a Headquarters and Headquarters battery. He is currently completing a doctorate of management with a concentration in global leadership from Colorado Technical University.
Capt. (P) Walden Wagner III is an air defense artillery officer studying at the Command and General Staff College. Previously, he commanded a Patriot fire unit and oversaw regional and homeland defense as the sensor management cell officer in charge within the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command area of operations.