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 all 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.
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, so SHORAD units are once again needed. He added the Army was given a "wake-up call" when it observed the conflict in Ukraine.
In the 1990s, every Army division had a SHORAD battalion to protect it. In 2017, none of the 10 active divisions had one. So, 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.
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. Half are now with the 5-4 ADA and the others are ready for issue at a pre-positioned equipment depot in Germany.
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. These will be stood up incrementally over time, 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 (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.
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. 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. Now there's eight 14P instructors at the school just for the new Man-Portable Air Defense System or MANPADS Stinger 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. 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.
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.
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. 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. 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. All Avenger consoles should be upgraded by the end of September 2020.
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 FY 2020 and continue through FY 2023.