Soon brand new Army recruits will learn how to identify and counter small drone threats in basic training.
The Army wants soldiers at every level to understand the danger of small drone attacks and plans to equip units down to the squad level with devices to take down those drones.
“It’s going to become a basic soldier requirement to identify, report and in some cases react to the threat,” said Sgt. Maj. Demetrius Johnson, senior enlisted advisor for the joint counter-small unmanned aerial systems office. “It’s MOS agnostic, it’s not specific to an air defender to be able to employ these handheld systems.”
Johnson spoke alongside his boss, Maj. Gen. Sean Gainey, the office director, at the Center for Strategic and International Studies on Tuesday as the center also released its extensive report, titled “Countering Small Uncrewed Systems.”
The pair said that the Army’s Center for Initial Military Training is currently rewriting doctrine to include counter-drone training in boot camp as the force fields equipment and recently opened the Joint Counter Small Unmanned Aerial Systems University at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. The university recently concluded its first course and is expected to be fully staffed within a year.
The shift is a result of the growing air threat from hypersonic and cruise missiles down to hobby quadcopters, which has placed a premium on air defense platforms and soldiers.
As the Army shifts its focus to large-scale combat, air defense battalions will integrate into the division, Gainey said. Each division will have a counter-drone battery manned by air defense soldiers. The Army plans to also issue handheld gear for smaller drones down to the squad level.
At the same time, Gainey said his office is working to revise strategy with U.S. Special Operations Command, which has been tasked with attacking air threats before they launch rather than relying on detection to stop an incoming attack.
But specialization matters.
Gainey said his team compared the performance of a Marine Corps air defense unit guarding an installation with another non-air defense MOS unit using the same equipment for another installation and found a 30% difference in their success rate for handling air threats.
Lt. Col. Robert Lodewick, an Army spokesman, confirmed that the air defense force has the lowest deploy-to-dwell ratio in the Army.
Whether its soldiers manning radars in Poland for the Russia-Ukraine War or beefing up aerial defenses across the Middle East following the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas War, which saw 55 attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria since Oct. 17, air defense is now part of nearly every deployment.
“In a crisis, the President usually reaches for the carriers first, but they usually reach for air defenses second,” Tom Karako, director of CSIS’s Missile Defense Project told Army Times. “The op tempo for Patriot personnel has been among the highest personnel tempo in the joint force, and with good reason.”
While the threat has grown, the number of soldiers the Army has in its air defender ranks has climbed only slightly.
A decade ago, in 2013, the service counted a total of 8,201 soldiers in the field in the active, Guard and Reserve. As of late September, 8,654 soldiers worked in the field, according to Army data. The current number is a slight dip from a higher total five years ago.
In 2018 there were 9,191 air defenders in uniform. For comparison, in fiscal year 2021 the Army had more than 11,000 human resource specialists.
“We don’t have enough air defense capacity relative to demand, and we never will. Look at the way in which Ukraine has been expending air and missile defense interceptors and translate that over to what we would need in a China conflict. We are going to need to increase capacity a lot more.”
To cover the nearly endless sky, counter-drone planners have split some of the tasks between “area” and “point” defense, according to the CSIS report.
Traditional air defenders are manning the larger, more complex systems such as long-range interceptors and high-energy lasers for area defense while maneuver forces use guns, nets and other handheld platforms for smaller threats.
That’s both a safety and cost issue. In one example, the report notes, Israel fired two $3 Million PAC-2 interceptors and scrambled a fighter jet to counter a drone that entered the country’s airspace in 2016.
Early in the Ukraine War, tens of thousands of drones were flooding the sky over Russian forces to thwart their air defense systems.
Currently, the Department of Defense offers a two-week counter drone course at Yuma, Arizona, which is planned to lengthen to three weeks in fiscal year 2025.
The Army conducts a master trainer course on countering small drones at the Maneuver Center of Excellence, Fort Moore, Georgia. Starting next year, the Joint Counter-UAS University at Fort Sill will offer separate, two-week operator and maintainer courses.
Soldiers who pass these courses will receive Additional Skill Identifiers that will help units track the personnel capabilities in their formations, Johnson said.
The Army is also dispatching mobile training teams to combat training centers, for units facing deployment and to Air Force units when requested to educate troops on air defense protection measures and gear.
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.