US Army Rushes to Add Hundreds of Stinger Missile Teams As Threat of Small Drones Evolves

The extra Stingers are an interim solution as service continues to test new jammers, lasers, and other short-range air defense systems.

US Army

As the threat of small drones, or swarms thereof, becomes increasingly apparent, the U.S. military as a whole is rushing to add new and improved short-range air defense capabilities. Now, the U.S. Army in planning to add hundreds of teams armed with Stinger missiles to smaller units as it pushes ahead with a broader program to develop new electronic warfare jammers and lasers, as well as more traditional surface-to-air missiles and automatic cannons.

Earlier in January 2018, the Army deployed soldiers to Europe to begin training new teams to operate the Stinger shoulder-fired man-portable air defense system. The service plans to reintroduce as many as 600 teams in total to standard, Stryker-mounted, and mechanized infantry companies as part of a larger effort, known as Maneuver Short Range Air Defense, or M-SHORAD, according to the November-December 2017 edition of Fires Bulletin, the Army's official artillery and air defense professional journal.

"Bringing back the Stinger addresses a self-identified gap that the Army created and has recognized," Lieutenant Colonel Aaron Felter, the Director of Training and Doctrine at the Army’s Air Defense Integrated Office, told Defense News earlier in January 2018. "We’re getting back to the basics and providing short-range air defense to maneuver units."

Attaching Stinger teams to small maneuver units was a typical practice during the latter stages of the Cold War, which came to an end as the threat of enemy air attacks appeared to dissipate in the 1990s, creating a significant and dangerous gap that The War Zone’s own Tyler Rogoway explored in depth in this past feature.

In addition, the Army has taken steps to make the missiles more effective against a wider array of targets, specifically small drones. The service is adding new proximity fuzes, which feature a conformal radar antenna wrapped around the warhead assembly, as it sends old Stingers that have reached the end of their shelf-life back to the depot for overhaul.

But the extra Stingers are just an interim solution to a growing threat. The Army envisions adding a number of additional systems, including vehicles with electronic warfare suites, lasers, and more conventional missiles and guns, throughout its forces and has been actively evaluating a number of possible options.

On Jan. 17, 2018, OrbitalATK, now part of Northrop Grumman, announced it had demonstrated a modified Stryker wheeled armored vehicle with the Anti-Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Defense System, or AUDS, as well an XM914 30mm cannon to the Army at Fort Sill in Oklahoma, as part of the latest iteration of the Maneuver Fires Integrated Experiment, or MFIX. The service holds these events regularly to evaluate various types of weapon systems and equipment, with short range air defense has been an increasingly important focus. Those developments also feed into the larger effort, known as Maneuver Short Range Air Defense, or M-SHORAD.

OrbitalATK

OrbitalATK's Stryker with the AUDS and XM914 cannon.

The Stryker-based system OrbitalATK showed off at MFIX represents two of the main lines of effort in filling that capability gap—directional jammers and rapid-firing automatic cannon. The Army has already sent a pair of the armored vehicles with a similar electronic warfare capability, but no new guns, to Europe for field tests.

OrbitalATK’s configuration cues the jammer via an infrared camera and a set of short-range electronically scanned array radar units, all on a telescoping mast on the rear of the vehicle. The crew can also use the sensor suite to aim the remote operated 30mm cannon, which can engage aerial targets with air-bursting ammunition, increasing the probability of a kill.

The firm developed the Stryker-mounted system as part of an $8.5 million contract with the Army. It is possible that it could adapt some or all of the equipment to fit on other vehicles, such as the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle tactical truck or the M1 Abrams tank.

Separately, the Virginia-headquartered defense contractor brought one of its M25 25mm grenade launchers to the MFIX event to show how an individual soldier could use that weapon’s airburst capabilities to knock down small drones. The Army has been actively evaluating that system on and off since 2010, but cancelled its official plans to buy any of the launchers in 2017.

OrbitalATK

A 25mm airburst from an M25 grenade launcher round knocks down a small quad-copter type drone during MFIX.

These technology demonstrations aren’t a guarantee that the Army will actually buy any of these systems, though. OrbitalATK had already brought the same vehicle to White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico for another M-SHORAD event in September 2017. Boeing, Raytheon, and South Korea’s Hanwha all brought their own offerings, all of which were on display at the Association of the U.S. Army's main annual conference the next month.

Boeing’s system is also Stryker-based, but features a larger, multi-purpose turret at the rear, which can fire Stinger, Hellfire Longbow, and Sidewinder missiles. At White Sands, the vehicle fired the millimeter wave radar-guided Hellfire Longbow at both small fixed wing drones and remote-controlled Humvees.

Raytheon, in cooperation with Israel’s Rafael demonstrated a truck-mounted version of the much-touted Iron Dome counter-rockets, artillery, and mortars (C-RAM) system, demonstrating the interceptor’s capabilities against unmanned aerial vehicles. Hanwha’s Hybrid Biho is a much more conventional mobile short-range air defense system that combines a turret with two 30mm cannons, four Singung short-range surface-to-air missiles, and a mechanically-scanned fire control radar with a tracked chassis the company derived from its K200 armored personnel carrier.

It’s not clear when new short-range air defense systems might reach soldiers in the field, either, though the Army has clearly acknowledged that there is a serious need for this capability already. A series of mass drone attacks against Russian forces in Syria have only underscored the reality of this emerging threat.

But it’s not just terrorists and insurgents that will be making use of small drones. Potential near-peer opponents, such as Russia and China, are steadily improving their capabilities, including the ability to operate small groups of unmanned aircraft in autonomous or semi-autonomous swarms.

In the November-December 2017 issue of Fires Bulletin, Brigadier General McIntire specifically highlighted the danger of unmanned aircraft serving as scouts and spotters for enemy artillery and air strikes. He specifically highlighted Russia’s tactics Ukraine, which also involve electronic warfare and other assets, something the Army has dubbed Russian New Generation Warfare.

“Low, slow, and small UASs [unmanned aerial systems], in particular, present considerable threats to maneuver forces and are difficult to detect and defend against by maneuver units,” U.S. Army Brigadier General Randall McIntire, commandant of the Army’s Air Defense Artillery School at Fort Sill, wrote in the November-December 2017 edition of Fires Bulletin. “Without such [short range air defense] capabilities, maneuver formations are exposed to potentially continuous surveillance by threat UASs and subsequent devastating attacks by fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft and artillery.”

Vitaly Kuzmin

A Russian Eleron-3SV tactical drone, one of many the country has fielded in recent years.

The service has also cited the Russo-Ukrainian conflict as a driving force behind its decision to immediately start reintegrating Stinger teams into smaller units. With both sides using small drones, man-portable surface-to-air missiles have been an important weapon for Russian-backed separatists, as well as Ukraine’s own troops.

As such, “the immediate focus is Europe and getting Europe ready to fight tonight and defend Europe against any adversary," Lieutenant Colonel Felter told Defense News. "The goal is to get 62 Stinger teams into the operational force as soon as possible."

The simmering conflict in Ukraine, which began after Russia seized the Crimea region in 2014, has prompted a significant change in the U.S. military's posture, as well as that of its European allies. In addition to new air defense systems, American troops in Germany recently received up-gunned Strykers with a 30mm cannon turrets, as well as versions with mounted Javelin anti-tank missiles, to give units them more fire power against a near-peer opponent, such as Russia, with larger armored and mechanized formations.

The problem, as we at The War Zone have repeatedly highlighted, though, is that many of the available countermeasures are best suited to counter individual small drones and similar aerial threats, not defeat complex swarms of unmanned aircraft. The Russian experience in Syria has already shown how even a small number of home built aircraft can breach multi-layered defenses that include traditional air defense radars, short-range air defense systems, and electronic warfare assets.

US Army

The two experimental Strykers with counter-drone systems during field tests in Europe in 2017.

Many Advanced technologies, such as lasers and directional jammers, have similar limitations, being able to generally focus only on one target at a time. Broadband electronic warfare systems could offer wider protection, but might knock out friendly emitters in the process, effectively shutting down vital sensors, communication nodes, or other equipment right in the middle of an attack.

Our own Tyler Rogoway has posited more than once that the only real defense against an enemy swarm might be a friendly, writing previously:

“Although it may sound like a page out a science fiction novel, the only thing that could probably counter such a dense swarming attack on ground forces or a garrisoned force would be for those forces to have their own counter-swarm swarms at the ready. This would result in dozens or even hundreds of mini kamikaze dogfights in the sky – a life and death suicide struggle among diminutive hive-minded flying robots.”

However the Army decides to proceed with the M-SHORAD effort, it’s working on a truncated timetable, though. The threats of unmanned aircraft and drone swarms are already rapidly evolving. In the space of just a year, non-state actors in the Middle East went from sending individual commercial quad- and hex-copter type drones with improvised munitions to harass state security forces to launching mass attacks using autonomous, GPS-guided unmanned aircraft. Nation states are steadily making their own advances in these areas, too.

With the gap between its existing defenses and these potential threats already expanding, the Army cannot afford to wait too much longer to introduce new weapons and other countermeasures.

 Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com