How time flies when you don’t need ADA

U.S. Army paratroopers assigned to the 173rd Airborne Brigade fire an FIM-92 Stinger during an air defense live-fire exercise alongside soldiers with the Croatian Air Defense Regiment. This training is part of Exercise Shield 22 at Kamenjak near Medulin, Croatia on April 8, 2022 (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. John Yountz)

Air Defense Artillery has been a facet of the modern battlefield since at least 1911 when 2LT Giulio Gavotti of the Italian Air Flotilla, lobbed four small Cipelli grenades over an Ottoman camp in Libya, from his Taube monoplane during the Italo-Turkish War. In the U.S. Army, this meant the birth of AAA, moving from early 3-inch M1916/M1917 “balloon guns” in the Great War to the .50 cal in various mounts (M2, M16, M45), 37mm (M1), 40mm Chrysler Bofors (and its later M19 and M42 SPAAGs), and the 3-inch M3 in WWII.

By the Cold War, we had the radar-directed 120mm M1 Stratosphere, the 90mm M1/M2/M3, the 75mm M51 Skysweeper, and the 20mm M163/M167 VADS, with all but the latter replaced by missile systems evolving from the Nike family to Hawk (augmented by Redeye) and, finally, the Patriot.

The only late Cold War-era SPAAG on the chart was the disastrous Sgt. York system which was never fielded, and it was left to the M48 Chaparral, a stripped-down M113 APC chassis carrying four modified Sidewinders, to provide an umbrella over the immediate battlefield in what was termed Short-Range Air Defense (SHORAD) until it was withdrawn in the 1990s.

Since full-capability Patriot batteries are not small things that can be shlepped around easily, and are typically a division or corps-level asset except under special circumstances, this left brigades to make due in the SHORAD mission with light ADA battalions consisting of man-carried Stingers MANPADS or, in the case of mechanized units, the Avenger system which was just a Hummv with a few Stingers and a .50 cal M3P. The typical TOE for an ADA battalion since Chaparral was retired in the early 1990s was for 36 Avengers or 24 MANPADS teams to defend a brigade or about one system per 150 or so Joes.

The thing is, once the Cold War ended, the wheels fell off ADA in the U.S. Army.

Facing no realistic and immediate air threat since the IFOR/SFOR mission ended in 2004 and Saddam’s air power had been destroyed the year prior, ADA at least at the brigade level and below got the same treatment that the CBW guys have always had. Chaparral and Hawk had long been retired, even from the National Guard. VADS was gone as well. Of the more than 1,100 Avengers delivered, fewer than 400 remained in inventory by 2017, and a lot of these were dry rotting in Guard armories.

After all, South Korea can largely take care of its own air defense needs in the event of an all-out war with the stuck-in-the-1960s Norks, and if China went for Taiwan, that was clearly going to be a problem for the Navy, so why bother? I mean, the Air Force says there will always be air superiority, right? 

In a more staggering bit of news, it was just detailed by Raytheon that the Army’s stockpile of Stingers is at least 18 years old for the newest models and, with a potential need to replace “over 1,400” Stingers sent to Ukraine courtesy of a drawdown from U.S. war reserves, the pipeline could take months if not years to reopen.

“We’re going to have to go out and redesign some of the electronics in the missile and the seeker head,” Raytheon Technologies CEO Greg Hayes told investment analysts Tuesday during the company’s quarterly earnings call. “That’s going to take us a little bit of time.”

Because time is always the thing you have the most of when suddenly needing air defense.

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