The Army’s formerly robust air and missile defense community has seen both its ranks and equipment dwindle in the face of counterinsurgency and other priorities that stress-tested the force over the last few decades.
Slowly, over time, the missile defenders have seen new exercises brought back to their training, and with the establishment of a cross functional team dedicated solely to improving their gear. And the increased demands that will be placed on them in future, near-peer contests are driving that work.
Brig. Gen. Brian Gibson heads the AMD CFT and talked with Army Times about recent developments and near-term milestones headed to the AMD community in an interview leading up to the Association of the U.S. Army meeting.
Gibson, who took the job in April, has been a career air defender, especially on the operational end. The chance to bring together material advances with the operational side of the force is paramount if missile defenders can be counted on to accomplish what’s expected of them.
Current trends of longer-range fires from adversaries such as Russia and China now mean that U.S. forces face genuine overhead threats that they haven’t seen in the lifetime of anyone now in uniform.
Gibson sees his job as providing the equipment that will help those soldiers protect the “front edge of the fight.”
“Our highest gap is we are trying to speed up is protection of the maneuver force,” Gibson said. "It’s the first essential task for Army air missile defense.”
A “sense off” at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico, earlier this year has helped the CFT and related Army leadership better evaluate the Lower-Tier Air and Missile Defense Sensor.
Lt. Gen. James Dickinson, chief of the Army Space and Missile Defense Command, said that the Army will pick a new radar system by the end of the year.
That sense off event included the LTAMDS replacement candidates tracking simulated missile and live aircraft scenarios, Gibson told Army Times.
That will help with the CFT goal of fielding the new radar to the first Patriot unit by the fourth quarter of fiscal year 2022. The Patriot system has been in service since the late 1970s.
The plan is to then field 15 battalions by 2031.
The next, maybe most visible to maneuver units is the Mobile Short Range Air Defense program or MSHORAD. That will include a new Stryker variant that will carry two Hellfire missiles in an external pod, an M230F 30mm chain gun, a 7.62mm machine gun and a separate external pod with four Stinger missiles.
That marks a considerable increase in firepower.
Four prototypes are scheduled for delivery this month. The timeline is almost as short to get to the field. Army leadership wants to have 144 MSHORAD systems to field four battalions by second quarter fiscal year 2023.
The MSHORAD, Gibson said, is showing real promise for speeding up some of these long-awaited improvement. The program has seen its deliver shift from 2025 to the current date.
And MSHORAD has more items to come. Gibson stressed that while the first round of MSHORAD will be for battalions accompanying armor units, that won’t always been the case. The Army can tailor the package to the appropriate unit type and demands.
To that end, they’re also working on adding more powerful high-energy lasers to the defensive system, he said.
They’ve started with lower-end lasers to defeat lower end threats that might not need a Hellfire missile, say a small commercial drone. But the goal is to have a 50kw laser on the Stryker or whatever platform is carrying the protective gear.
The Army also recently purchased two Iron Dome systems, the indirect fire protection capability in use by the Israeli Defense Force.
That system shields forces from rockets, artillery and mortar attacks. Two batteries are expected to be deployed in fiscal year 2020.
But the number one priority for the CFT, Gibson said, is something that many who watch the hardware rolling out won’t even see but is crucial to making everything work – the Integrated Air and Missile Defense Battle Command System, or IBCS.
That system is scheduled for limited user testing in early 2020.
That LUT is the last major hurdle for IBCS as researchers and leaders to “begin uncoupling” weapons systems from shooters. In the past each system had to have its own way of detecting and many of those didn’t talk with each other.
The Army, and for that matter, joint force goal is to have agnostic shooter-sensor platforms. That means that everything in the network can talk to everything else, better enhancing how the right shooter can be used to take out a target using any sensor.
“This absolutely underpins the success of AMD for not only the Army but for the joint force,” Gibson said.
Beyond the hardware, ways in which new software, algorithms and ways of using sensing, can change how effective a system can operate.
“There’s quite a bit of collaboration with the (Artificial Intelligence) Task Force,” Gibson said.
That’s because the battlespace is more congested and complex. And the technology is collecting orders of magnitude more data from a variety of sensors. The AI will help in collection, collaborating and displaying the information to the operator, Gibson said.
Gibson envisions a near and mid-term future for other air defenders that looks much different than recent decades. More advances systems with pacing threats that will challenge Army operations will put future soldiers back in the maneuver force.
“You have a selection of weapons at your fingertips that are integrated with greater sensors feeding you. Better situational awareness, better suited to counter what you’ve been tasked to do,” Gibson said. “The branch is on the move with things far superior to what we’ve used in past decades.”
Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.