- The disastrous use of drones during the recent war between Armenia and Azerbaijan highlighted how modern aerial threats such as drones have developed in recent years.
- This is a particular problem for the US military, which shrinks its air-defense arsenal after the Cold War and is now trying to recreate it to counter new and emerging threats.
- For more stories visit the Business Insider homepage.
The recent six-week war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed Karabakh region killed nearly 6,000 soldiers and civilians from both sides and destroyed hundreds of military hardware.
The Azri drone caused that catastrophe. Hours of drone footage showed devastating precision strikes against Armenian targets and debated the debate about the tank’s future.
The US military was not part of the conflict, but it reminded of an inconvenient truth that the service has been known for at least a decade: a severe shortage of its anti-air (AA) defenses.
Air defense arsenal
The collapse of the Soviet Union reduced the possibility of a super-power war. Due to the lack of serious air threats, the army got rid of many of its air-defense units and directed its resources elsewhere.
As a result, its air defense arsenal, especially ground-based AA platforms such as short-range air defense (SHORAD) systems, is now much smaller.
The Army’s three primary base-based AA systems — MIM-23 Hawk, MIM-72 Chaparral, and M163 VADS — retired between 1991 and 1998. From 2004 to 2018, the US Army reduced the number of SHORAD battalions. 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 Man-Portable Air-Defense (MANPAD) system, the AN / TWQ-1 Avenger, the MIM-104 Patriot, and the Terminal High Altitude Defense Defense (THAAD) system.
The Stinger and Avenger – The Avenger is a wheeled projection system with just eight wheels – designed to engage aircraft up to about 10,000 feet. The Patriot and THAAD are designed to intercept aircraft and missiles at 73,000 feet for the Patriot and 93 miles for the THAAD.
Fast, cheap threat
US Air Force fighter jets are tasked to eliminate threats that may not hit the system – particularly other enemy fighters and attackers. They have performed well against the largely inferior air force of Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yugoslavia, but the threats are changing.
“Our capabilities are generally very good against adverse aircraft.” Colonel Mark Canyon, a senior consultant and a former Marine Corps at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Insider.
But the biggest aerial threats of the future are not enemy fighter bombers. “The two big ones are drones and cruise missiles,” Canyon said, “there are very real concerns about those threats”.
In January, Iran launched more than a dozen cruise missiles at two Iraqi targets housing American personnel. None of the missiles were shot or intercepted, and their effects left more than a hundred soldiers with mild traumatic brain injuries.
It was one of several missile and drone strikes 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 the opposition to use them in large numbers. They can be very fast – especially cruise missiles – which are not only difficult to intercept with Air Force fighter aircraft but are also financially unstable.
Like the Air Force, the military is reluctant to use more sophisticated AA weapons against such small, inexpensive and often difficult-to-aim targets. Army officials have said that using a $ 3 million Patriot missile against a drone, which costs a few hundred dollars, is not a “good economic ratio”.
“The problem with drones is that they are very cheap, so firing a $ 100,000 missile into a $ 1,000 drone makes no sense,” Cancion said. “You really need something else.”
Although the US is upgrading its ground-based AA strongholds, its rivals have invested heavily in them – largely due to US Airforce dominance.
With larger systems such as the S-300 and S-400, Russia has a number of tracked and wheeled AA platforms – notably the Book and Tor missile system, the 2K22 Tunguska and the Pantir S-1. In addition to the missiles, the Tunguska and Pantir have 30 mm autocannons capable of hitting low-flying targets. Systems combine to form a layered defense.
Russia is also developing a new AA artillery system, Derivatsiya-PVO. Specifically designed to fire drones and cruise missiles, the system is equipped with a 57-mm main gun capable of smart moon firing that can explode in mid-flight.
Russia claims that its AA system has overtaken dozens of drone strikes at its bases in Syria this year after experiencing such attacks in 2018. The Russian AA system does not always triumph over drones and missiles, but Moscow’s systems already have continued investment. This has given it an advantage.
China also has a variety of ground-based AA defenses, most notably the HQ-9 medium-to-long-range AA systems, as well as the Type 95 and Type 09 self-propelled AA artillery systems.
This is not to say that the US military has not been addressed what has been called the “modern-day missile gap”. In fact, the opposite is the case.
The Army’s asymmetric battle group began developing counter-drone training, technology and tactics in response to the use of small drones by ISIS, and when the AWG is being deactivated, the Air and Missile Defense will be among the top Army officers in 2020 And were expected to remain so for the next four years.
The Army has begun building a new interim system, the IM-SHORAD striker, for its immediate AA needs. The most recent AIM-9X Sidewinder missile-equipped indirect fire protection capability (IFPC) system is also expected to enter service in the next few years. Troops in Texas are testing Israel’s Iron Dome system, developed with American technology, as an interim cruise-missile defense.
The Army is also looking at long-term solutions such as rail guns, guided-energy weapons and jamming technology. They will take longer to develop and field, but it is clear that the military is prioritizing aerial and missile defense and intends to counter future aerial threats with a wide variety of systems.
“This is not a single technique or a set of technologies that will be fielded.” Cancun said. “It’s going to be a series of technologies.”
Those systems have to work together to see the military coming.
General James McConville, the top military officer, said in March, “Where the army is going to go is a level of defense.” “We want to be able to tie every sensor to the shooter.”