Military news outlets and even the mainstream media have picked up on worries that the USA can’t reliably defend against the latest missiles being developed by Russia. President Putin recently boasted that Russia is working on long-range cruise missiles and hypersonic ballistic missile warheads that will be able to either sneak or race past the USA’s missile defenses.

Putin’s probably right that his new weapons can’t be stopped by current technology, but that doesn’t really matter. The USA has never depended on stopping a Russian nuclear attack anyway; the real defense is the threat of a devastating response from US nuclear forces. Ballistic missile defense is more aimed at rogue states or terror groups that might launch one or two missiles.

What’s really worrying isn’t the USA’s inability to shoot down some Russian ICBMs; it’s the US Army’s fading ability to shoot down enemy aircraft. A few days ago I saw a statement by Senator Roger Wicker, the chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, in which he said that US ground forces hadn’t faced an enemy air attack since the Korean War. I wondered if there might be a bit of complacency sneaking in there – and when I checked on the air defense systems currently fielded by the US Army and USMC, I decided there probably is.

Not that long ago the US Army had a wide range of air defense systems. Point defense was covered by the Stinger MANPADS system and the M163 Vulcan gun system. The Sidewinder-based MIM-72 Chaparral had a longer range than the Stinger, and the MIM-23 Hawk provided medium-range coverage out to around 30 miles. Finally, the Patriot system was used for long-range air defense to around 100 miles, and since the late 1980s has also taken on the ballistic missile defense role.

The problem is that most of these systems are gone now, and they haven’t been replaced. Stinger is still around, and the current versions are a lot more capable than the 1980s models, but its range is still limited to about five miles. The M163 guns were all scrapped or sold off by 1994; the US Army’s Hawk launchers went the same year, and the Marines lost theirs in 2002. The last Chaparral units stood down in 1998. Now there’s only Stinger, and Patriot left to provide air defense to US ground units, and the latest Patriot variants are highly optimized for anti-missile work; they’re not actually that good at shooting down aircraft.

Most of the USA’s major allies are in the same situation. The UK is now down to two air defense systems – Starstreak HVM, which is extremely lethal but only reaches out 4.3 miles, and Rapier FSC, with a five-mile range. If an enemy aircraft has missiles with a 5.1-mile range, it can attack with impunity. Germany, like the USA, has Stinger and Patriot with nothing in between.
France only has the Mistral, an aging MANPADS with a 3.6-mile range.

None of this matters much if the enemy either doesn’t have an air force or the one it has can be obliterated on the first night of the war. If they can keep flying, however, the ability of western ground forces to defend themselves is looking pretty doubtful. That could be costly in a large-scale war, so it’s probably time to look at rebuilding the ground forces’ air defense capabilities.

Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.

Fergus Mason

Fergus Mason grew up in the west of Scotland. After attending university he spent 14 years in the British Army and served in Bosnia, Northern Ireland, Kosovo and Iraq. Afterwards, he went to Afghanistan as a contractor, where he worked in Kabul, Mazar-e-Sharif and Camp Leatherneck. He now writes on a variety of topics including current affairs and military matters.
Fergus Mason

Latest posts by Fergus Mason (see all)


1 thought on “Air Defense

  1. I know that because AAA and SAMs don’t fight each other we don’t normally compare them like we do with tanks, artillery, combat aircraft and small arms.

    Still, I’m surprised that the US Army got rid of its Bradley Stinger vehicles, reverting back to IFV versions. The Marines are supposed to have LAV-ADs but you didn’t mention them in the article.

    Since near peer competitors would keep US airpower busy or even gain air superiority in certain sectors of a future battlefield, shouldn’t the US ground forces start investing their newly approved $$ billion budget in armoured, high mobility short and medium range gun and missile ADA which is the equivalent of the Strela-10 (SA-13) or Pantsir (SA-22)? High volume, radar tracking cannons and machine guns are a far cheaper way to shoot down UAVs than sending a high performance jet.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *