Army Working to Fill Air-and-Missile Defense Gaps

By Jon Harper
Mobile short-range air defense capability

Photo: SAAB

This is part 2 of a 6-part series covering the Army’s modernization priorities leading up to the Association of the United States Army’s annual meeting in Washington, D.C., Oct. 8-10. Today’s focus: Air-and-Missile Defense. 

After nearly two decades of fighting insurgents on the ground, the Army is turning its attention to threats from the air and beefing up its ability to fend off attacks.

The United States military has enjoyed air supremacy for many decades. Not a single American soldier has been killed by enemy aircraft since the Korean War, Vice Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville noted recently.

“We’ve been pretty uncontested except on the land … but as we go into the future we’re not sure that that’s the way it’s going to be,” he said at the National Defense Industrial Association’s Army Science and Technology Conference. “We believe we’ll be contested [from] the air … and so we have to develop the force and modernize the force so it can win on that battlefield.”

Brig. Gen. Randy McIntire, the head of the cross-functional team charged with spearheading the service’s efforts to modernize its air-and-missile defense systems, said the Army will have to rebuild its capabilities after many years of neglect and underfunding.

“We lost a significant amount of our capability in the mid-2000s … primarily to pay for the war in the Middle East with force structure [cuts],” he said in an interview with National Defense. “There were decisions made that we would always have air supremacy and air superiority, so the Army made decisions in terms of where they wanted to invest.”

Recent Russian military activity in places like Ukraine served as a wakeup call and highlighted the need to deploy new systems to protect U.S. ground forces from air and missile attacks, he said.

The near-term solution that the Army is pursuing is an interim mobile short-range air defense capability, or MSHORAD, to protect maneuver forces.

The Army is moving aggressively to acquire it, Secretary Mark Esper said during a meeting with reporters.

The service recently awarded a contract to an industry team to develop nine prototypes. A Leonardo DRS equipment package will include Moog’s reconfigurable integrated weapons platform, Rada’s multi-mission hemispheric radar and Raytheon’s Stinger missiles — all of which General Dynamics will integrate onto its Stryker vehicles.

“It’s traditional effectors — guns and missiles on a Stryker chassis,” Esper explained. The MSHORAD-equipped Strykers will be able to keep up with heavy formations, he noted.
McIntire said the prototypes are expected to be delivered in spring 2019, and the first systems are slated to be fielded in 2020.

These new tools are intended to shoot down enemy unmanned aerial vehicles, planes and helicopters. When it comes to countering drones, the focus will be on defeating mid- to large-sized platforms, not the small quadcopters that non-state groups like the Islamic State have employed, he noted.

“We’re building MSHORAD to deal with basically category 3 [UAVs] and above in the initial go-round because we couldn’t gold plate it … to try to do everything,” he said. “We knew we had to deal with a fixed-wing and a rotor-wing threat. And so we developed this platform to keep up with the maneuver force, and we wanted to deal with the targets … that we knew they couldn’t deal with today.”

Since last year, the Army has also been training more soldiers to use man-portable anti-aircraft weapons such as shoulder-fired Stinger missiles to get more capability into the field as quickly as possible, McIntire said.

In August, the Army completed testing on a new proximity fuze warhead for the Stinger that is designed to improve its ability to destroy low-observable unmanned aerial vehicles by not requiring a direct hit. The new technology — which can be fired from shoulder-launched systems or Avenger weapon systems — will be fielded to select units under an urgent materiel release, according to a press release from the Army’s cruise missile defense systems project office.

In addition to protecting maneuver forces, the service needs to defend its fixed and semi-fixed sites.

“We’re going to be able to have the deeper magazine, longer ranges with indirect fire protection capability that are protecting some of our more vulnerable assets — airfields, command posts, things that may not be moving around as often,” McIntire said.

Multi-mission launchers are expected to form the backbone of the new defenses.

 “The big idea … [is] you’re able to put different kinds of armaments on it for the different threats,” he said. “You just load it up.”

Defeating enemy cruise missiles will be the initial focus because that is the most pressing need, he said. Later, weapons that can counter mortars, artillery and rockets will be added.

Capabilities under consideration for that mission include AIM-9X Sidewinders missiles, miniature hit-to-kill missiles and Israel’s Iron Dome Tamir missiles. The Army has other systems under development in its S&T portfolio that could potentially fit the bill, McIntire noted.

The service is on track to deploy a new indirect fires protection capability by 2022, he said.

“We’re working pretty hard to see how we can accelerate as part of that cross-functional team, to include even looking at some of the foreign systems that are out there,” he said. “Our aperture is pretty wide open right now. We just want to see what’s out there across the industry.”

Among emerging technologies, Army leaders are especially keen on the potential for lasers and other directed energy weapons to contribute to the air-and-missile defense mission. With a nearly unlimited magazine and low cost-per-shot, they are seen as an affordable way of destroying drone swarms and other enemy assets.

“Directed energy is really our big push right now, especially within our science and technology portfolio,” McIntire said.

Esper said he is pressing the cross-functional team and others to accelerate the development of these types of systems. “Within a few years I want to get something out there,” he said. “I’m pushing folks to move left.”

Esper said it’s critical to get prototypes into the hands of soldiers as quickly as possible for experimentation.

“They will help shape how we think about the employment of lasers in terms of actually firing them, but also how do we integrate them as part of our formations against everything from small drones to cruise missiles to fast movers,” he added.

Army Space and Missile Defense Command is spearheading much of the directed energy testing. The organization was slated to demonstrate a 50-kilowatt laser in September at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico, on board its high-energy laser mobile test truck.

McIntire said the technology could protect maneuver forces.

“The 50-kilowatt effort that we got going on lines up very nicely with the MSHORAD formations, because you can move it around,” he said. “It’s going to be on a Stryker and it will do all the things we need to do at the tactical level. And those should be very, very effective against those targets that we’d see there.”

The Army wants even more powerful lasers. In July, Raytheon announced that it was designing a 100-kilowatt-class system for the service’s high-energy laser tactical vehicle demonstration program, which is part of the Army’s indirect fires protection capability increment 2 initiative.

“It’s a bigger laser. It’s going to have more range, more magazine,” McIntire said. “It’s going to be able to deal with more stressing threats.”

A system development and demonstration contract decision for building and integrating a 100-kilowatt laser on the Army’s family of medium tactical vehicles — valued at approximately $130 million — is expected in early 2019, according to a Raytheon press release.

“We’re starting to see industry see that there’s a need there and there’s a potential market to invest in these bigger lasers,” McIntire said.

The service is also interested in high-powered microwave weapons, he noted.

“That’s probably one of the more effective things that we can really look at pushing,” he said.

“There’s a lot of work going on that just can’t be talked about” publicly, he added.

By 2024, the Army aims to have platoon-sized elements equipped with directed energy weapons. In about 10 years, the capabilities could be integrated into larger combat formation, McIntire said.

Getting the technology “over the hump” and making it operational will require significant investment, he noted.

While the Army plans to buy new air-and-missile defense weapons, it also wants to improve its command-and-control capabilities.

McConville said having an integrated command-and-control and battle management system will be critical in the future so the service can link its sensors and shooters, forming a robust network for defense in depth.

The Army had hoped its integrated air-and-missile defense battle command system, or IBCS, program would reach initial operating capability in fiscal year 2018, but it has encountered a schedule slippage.

Linking up a network of different types of radars and missile launchers presents major technical challenges, McIntire noted.

“It’s been a tough nut quite frankly,” he said.

Fire control for such a network requires transferring high quality data from a radar that isn’t organic to the missile system being guided toward an inbound threat, he noted.

“That’s pretty tough because you’ve got to pass it off and you’re talking about a radar maybe built by X company and a missile built by Y company,” he explained. “You got different industry involvement there, so you got to try to make all these algorithms work.”

The Army wants the battle management network to optimize which shooter is tasked with taking out a particular target. The network also needs to be “self-healing” if a radar or another component is taken offline by enemy action or some other issue, he noted.

The Army sees IBCS as a compelling business case for open systems architectures.

“Instead of having to buy the entire weapons system in the future, we just buy launchers, or we just buy radars — we just buy what we need,” McIntire said. “We think it’s going to allow us to drive competition and maybe get some of the cost down for us.”

The service hopes to have the capability in place by 2022, but it could be ready on a smaller scale as early as 2020, he said.

“We’re on the cusp of being able to take some kind of package and … being able to work out the concepts of doing this,” McIntire said.

Northrop Grumman recently announced that its integrated air-and-missile defense battle command system successfully detected, tracked and simulated engagements against a range of aerial threat during weeks of testing at White Sands in April and May.

In the live air test, the system demonstrated its ability to combine data from sensors and multiple information sources for mock engagements of real and simulated fixed-wing, rotary-wing, cruise missile and tactical ballistic missile targets, the company said in a press release.

Twenty major components of IBCS were involved in the demonstration, it noted.

“As the command-and-control backbone of the Army’s future air-and-missile defense enterprise, IBCS will undergo increasingly complex tests as it works through development and prepares for operational fielding in the future,” Dan Verwiel, Northrop Grumman’s vice president and general manager for missile defense and protective systems, said in a statement.
McIntire said the initiative is back on track.

“There’s been a lot of progress made over the last year. I think we’re going to get this where we want to be,” he added. “I’m feeling pretty confident, more so than I have in a long time.”

Part 1: New Soldier Lethality Technologies on the Way 

Part 3: Big Challenges Face Army in Quest to Revamp Network

Part 4: Joint Multi-Role Rotorcraft Program Moving Forward

Part 5: Next-Gen Combat Vehicle to Require Emerging Tech

Topics: Army News, Land Forces, Missile Defense

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