Skip to content

Envisioning the Army’s Air and Missile Defense | Commentary

After working for over 30 years as an Army Air and Missile Defense officer, I’ve watched with great concern the “downsizing” and related financial strain on defense. Preparing for the future is difficult in even the best of times, but now the services must focus resources on prudent, low risk investments that deliver critical capabilities.

For the Army there is neither the time, nor the fiscal wherewithal to chase folly or fancy, or invest in the interesting. So with this year coming to an end and the dust settling on the first defense budget in years hitting the Pentagon, what refinements if any could be made in the air and missile defense portfolio?

The PATRIOT surface-to-air missile system is the foundational element of Army capability. It is combat proven and continues to deliver critical protection with its ability to simultaneously counter aircraft, unmanned aerial systems, cruise missiles, and theater ballistic missiles, in a joint and combined operating environment.

While PATRIOT has been around since the 1980s, it has undergone many upgrades and is currently programmed for radar digital processor and fire control station upgrades. Both of these will enhance PATRIOT’s capabilities, effectiveness, and reliability.

The digital processor upgrade increases the PATRIOT’s radar reliability and improves its target detection, identification, and multi-function surveillance capabilities. It also fully integrates the PAC-3 Missile Segment Enhancement, adding another missile to PATRIOT’s quiver, so it can select the optimum missile for the target being engaged.

The Modern Man Station upgrades will improve man-to-machine interface and reliability, and greatly reduce operator workload; so the operator can focus on situational awareness, target identification, and tactical decision making – the essence of combat operations.

PATRIOT is today’s pre-eminent air and missile defense system, employed around the world by 11 other partner nations. Its continued development is a sound investment that rests on a solid doctrinal, institutional, and logistical foundation.

But PATRIOT is not the only element of a Combatant Commander’s integrated air and missile defense system requiring improvement. Operation Iraqi Freedom showed us the need for better “integration” within our defensive network, to achieve better protection for our own aviators and greater combat capability. This lesson spawned the Integrated Battle Command System program (IBCS).

IBCS uses an open architecture to integrate any sensor, weapon, and battle management system’s data to provide: a more reliable, single-integrated air picture; better situational awareness; and decision support systems that improve the operator’s decision making. IBCS enables commanders to tailor defensive capabilities to achieve mix, mass, and leverage the integrated air picture for 360-degree situational awareness and integrated fires. After only six years of development, IBCS is slated to deliver these capabilities in 2016. It is an essential capability and should be the Army’s number one priority.

PATRIOT’s continued upgrades should be the Army’s number two priority. If there were funds for a third priority, it should be to accelerate procurement of the Terminal High Altitude and Area Defense or THAAD system.

THAAD offers a capability to defeat medium and short range ballistic missiles, with a greater defended area than Patriot, and in the altitude band between Aegis’ mid-course and PATRIOT’s lower engagement altitude. The first THAAD battery is deployed to Guam and Combatant Commanders are calling for more systems. It too can interface with IBCS to enhance operations.

What the Army should not be investing in is just as clear – the Medium Extended Air Defense System (MEADS), a system originally conceived to replace PATRIOT. Let us not be confused or diverted by the recent MEADS dual target engagement demonstration. While interesting, so was the 1996 simultaneous engagement of a LANCE and two drones by a U.S. Marine Corps HAWK battery. The Army noted that demonstration but did not stop HAWK’s inactivation and the Marines eventually followed suit. Instead the Army invested in the Patriot Advanced Capabilities program.

The MEADS demonstration was not a graduation exercise, so many more tests must be funded before MEADS would be ready for production. Its development has been costly and it presents an unaffordable procurement, not to mention the large doctrinal, institutional, and logistical risks. It is simply unconscionable to borrow dollars from near-term, low-risk investments, and other capabilities for MEADS. Fortunately Congress in the current version of the authorization act is on target by explicitly restricting any diversion of funds to MEADS.

Air and missile defense has been and will continue to be strategically vital. The Army has focused investments and needs Congress’ support. For the future, additional funds should flow to IBCS, PATRIOT, and THAAD. These systems are the most prudent, low-risk investments; they will deliver valuable capabilities near-term, not in the nebulous, distant future. Today, we have neither the time nor the fiscal capacity to invest in the interesting.

Retired Maj. Gen. Francis Mahon is a former Commanding General in the Army Air and Missile Defense Command, and a former Director of Test in the Missile Defense Agency.

Recent Stories

Should doctors in Congress earn money for their side job?

Supreme Court dodges definitive answer on legality of a ‘wealth tax’

Senate Finance Democrats look to raise revenue for 2025 tax cliff

Capitol Lens | Juneteenth on the Maryland campaign trail

At the Races: Trumping incumbency

Trump, Biden propel migrants to forefront of ‘contentious’ race