The provision of antiaircraft defense is one of the most important missions assigned to the Army. We have had this job for some 40 years, during which we have conducted our side of the critical duel between the defensive weapon on the ground and the offensive aircraft in the air. Fortunately, we have always been able to keep a little ahead of the airplane as performances have increased.
American servicemembers in Rota, Spain can rest easy. Personnel deployed to Camp Lemonier in Djbouti can likewise sleep soundly at night. That’s because those are the only two US bases in Europe and the Middle East that are out of the demonstrated range of recently employed Russian cruise missiles launched from Russian territorial waters. If the Russian Navy lives up to its design potential and leaves its territorial waters, those bases will also be at risk. In the Pacific, the Chinese cruise missile threat can deliver a clean sweep – there is no permanent US base outside of US sovereign territory that cannot be reached by PLA cruise missiles. While recently highlighted by Russian missile strikes in Syria, the cruise missile threat has been proliferating rapidly for more than a decade. And the US Army, which is the DoD component responsible for all ground-based air defense, hasn’t fielded a single system capable of defending US installations against cruise missile attack since the fall of the Soviet Union . The responsibility for short-range air defense (SHORADS) against cruise missiles has been effectively abandoned. Rarely has any service so spectacularly dropped the ball on an issue critical to the defense of deployed forces. Where is the US Army on SHORADS for Cruise Missile Defense?
The demonstration of Russia’s cruise missile capability in Syria on October 7 should not have been as big a surprise as it apparently was. A Russian Caspian Fleet flotilla of modern, Buyan-class missile corvettes, backed by a Gepard-class Frigate, launched a salvo of 26 Kalibr-NK (SS-N-30A) cruise missiles at targets 900nm distant, in Syria. Claims of inflight crashes notwithstanding, the majority of those missiles arrived on target with a claimed (but unverified) accuracy of three meters. This was a stunning combat demonstration from warships assigned to a landlocked body of water on Russia’s southern flank, the largest of which was the 1500-ton Dagestan – a ship roughly half the displacement of the smallest US surface combatants. Indeed, the US Navy hasn’t built a ship that small since the short-lived Claud Jones-class destroyer escorts commissioned from 1958 to 1960, and has never packed that much firepower into a ship that size.
The use of sea-launched land-attack cruise missiles (LACM) effectively (and legally) evades the restrictions of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty, which banned only ground-launched intermediate range land-attack missiles (cruise and ballistic) with ranges between 500 and 5500 km range. The SS-N-30A can be launched from submarines of Kilo, Lada, Akula or Yasen-classes or aircraft as well as surface combatants. Ships capable of firing the missile are assigned to the Pacific, Northern, Black Sea and Caspian fleets, making the system already deployed worldwide. The People’s Republic of China, on the other hand, is not bound by the INF treaty and has made a heavy investment in land-based LACM, including nuclear-tipped weapons. The extended range of the DH-10 brings Guam within reach from the Chinese mainland and Hawaii within range of an air launch from an H-6K Badger bomber.
Given the nature of the threat and the time Russia and China have spent developing their cruise missile systems, you might think that the Department of Defense is ahead of the threat. Indeed, the Navy is engaged in a longstanding upgrade program to defeat antiship cruise missiles with sea-based SHORADS, which has seen fielding of improved variants of the Evolved SeaSparrow, Rolling Airframe Missile, and the ubiquitous Vulcan-Phalanx, now completing its fourth upgrade sequence to Block 1B configuration. The Air Force is in the middle of an upgrade program for the radars of the F-15C and F-15E, adding an improved capability against cruise missiles using radar technologies already fielded for the F-18E/F. The Army, by contrast, is dealing with Cold War-era air defense capabilities that do not include a modernized anti-cruise missile capability. The deployment of the Theater High-Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) system to Guam in April 2013 was heavily publicized, and the deployment will likely be made permanent. The movement of THAAD was in response to a notional North Korean threat from the KN-08, a missile with no successful test launches that caused a restrained panic when it was viewed in a North Korean Parade in April 2012, and again this October.
Contrast this with the cruise missile threat in the Pacific, which numbers in the hundreds, if not thousands, of weapons. Despite the size of the threat, the US Army has deployed not a single land-based SHORADS system intended to defend against cruise missiles. Patriot systems can shoot down cruise missiles, but they are area defense weapons with limited missile loadouts, unsupported by SHORADS for point defense. But as the Navy investment has clearly demonstrated, the longer-range surface to air missiles (SAMs) such as Patriot or Standard must be supplemented by a short-range point defense, which the Army is currently lacking. The Avenger SHORADS system uses Stinger missiles, which have no tested capability against cruise missiles and which were intended to keep helicopters and tactical aircraft off the backs of maneuver forces – but only in clear weather. Only in August of this year did the Army issue a requirement for Stinger-based cruise missile defense. In the meantime, systems such as SLAMRAAM that could have been used against cruise missiles have been cancelled, the Army has truncated the JLENS elevated sensor system at two systems (one of which is in storage and one of which just crashed) and the Indirect Fire Protection Capability (IFPIC) is likely to find itself sharing their fate in the next round of budget cuts, leaving the US with no land-based, all-weather SHORADS against cruise missiles.
Leaving the air defense of critical military facilities (as opposed to maneuver units) in the hands of the land component is an anomaly among modern military forces. Most NATO nations (excepting the Dutch, Italians and Spanish) leave this mission with the Air Force, as do Japan, China and South Korea. The USSR and Saudi Arabia built separate air defense services, but the Russians finally integrated theirs into the Russian Aerospace Forces this August. The US Army’s possession of air defense as a primary function is rooted in history, dating to 1947. At the time, ground-based air defense consisted entirely of antiaircraft artillery, then a part of Army field artillery. When the 1947 Key West agreement established military roles and missions, the Army’s 6th “Primary Function” became “to provide Army forces as required for defense of the United States against air attack”. This mission was shared with the Air Force, which has as its first Primary Function the same task. In 1958, this function was more clearly delineated in DoDD 5100.1, where the Air Force explicitly lost its role in maintaining ground-based air defense.
During the Cold War, the Army took this responsibility seriously, establishing a multilayered air defense capability that included 265 Nike missile batteries stretching from Alaska to Florida and including facilities in South Korea, Japan and NATO. The Nike batteries lasted until 1975, having been replaced by the more mobile HAWK (which was not so extensively deployed). HAWK provided air and cruise missile defense against both maneuver forces and fixed installations, and were routinely permanently located at US bases overseas. The ground-based Vulcan Air Defense System could similarly provide air defense against aircraft and cruise missiles, although it was handicapped by the lack of fire control radar. With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, the Army retired the HAWK and Vulcan in favor of the Patriot, procured in much more limited numbers. Patriot batteries provided air and missile defense for expeditionary and permanent bases, gaining attention in the Gulf War as much for their failures as their much-overhyped successes. In the process, Patriot deployments shrank to defend only bases subject to imminent ballistic missile threat and cruise missile defense was essentially abandoned.
The doubling down on ballistic missile defense at the expense of cruise missile defense led to the introduction of the Patriot’s PAC-3 “hit to kill” missile, the fielding of THAAD, and pursuit of the ill-fated Medium Extended Air Defense System (MEADS). While the Army cancelled SLAMRAAM, the Norwegians used the same AIM-120 missile to produce NASAMS, fielded in 1998 and already on its second version. While the Army muddled along without an all-weather SHORADS, NASAMS was fielded by Norway, Spain, Finland and Holland. In what should have caused a terminal case of institutional embarrassment, the US Army had to borrow a NASAMS battery to provide protection for President Obama’s inauguration, leading to a permanent installation around Washington DC.
Faced with a threat in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army fielded C-RAM (Counter Rocket and Mortar, pronounced SEE-ram) to protect forward operating bases in Iraq and Afghanistan from indirect fire. This is a derivative of the Navy’s Vulcan-Phalanx System and uses the same components with different software and ammunition. This system, which was originally designed and built to counter cruise missiles, has been extensively tested by the Navy but the Army has never deployed it in that role. The initial fielding of the system was initiated in May 2004 and it was deployed the following year. This sense of urgency has long since evaporated: four years after the withdrawal from Iraq, the C-RAM systems deployed there have been retained stateside and the Army has not offered them up for cruise missile defense.
Despite similar budgetary pressures, both the Air Force and the Navy have invested in cruise missile defense. The Army, which retains sole responsibility for ground-based air defense, has not matched the efforts by the other services, and seems unlikely to step up to the plate without being forced to – “Big Army” has long since stopped prioritizing the SHORADS element of their air defense mission.
The Russian employment of cruise missiles in combat should serve as a long-overdue wakeup call for the Army. If the organization responsible for ground-based air defense is unwilling to step up to their responsibilities, particularly for SHORADS, then their role along with its funding and resources (total obligation authority) should be transferred to somebody who will.
Col. Mike “Starbaby” Pietrucha was an instructor electronic warfare officer in the F-4G Wild Weasel and the F-15E Strike Eagle, amassing 156 combat missions and taking part in 2.5 SAM kills over 10 combat deployments. As an irregular warfare operations officer, Colonel Pietrucha has two additional combat deployments in the company of US Army infantry, combat engineer, and military police units in Iraq and Afghanistan.