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.