The US Army is practicing to take down enemy aircraft in the skies over Europe
- The US military has renewed its focus on great-power competition.
- As part of that, it's preparing to take on a near-peer or peer adversary.
- That includes training for situations in which US forces won't control the air.
The US military is shifting its focus toward preparing for great-power conflict, and on the ground in Europe, where heightened tensions with Russia have a number of countries worried about renewed conflict.
That includes new attention to short-range air-defence - a capability needed against an adversary that could deploy ground-attack aircraft, especially helicopters, and contest control of the air during a conflict.
Between late November and mid-December, Battery C of the 1st Battalion, 174th Air Defence Artillery Regiment from the Ohio National Guard manoeuvred across southeast Germany to practice shooting down enemy aircraft.
The unit worked with 5,500 troops from 16 countries during the first phase of Combined Resolve XI, a biannual US-led exercise aimed at making US forces more lethal and improving the ability of Allied militaries to work together.
At Hohenfels training area, soldiers from Battery C engaged simulated enemy aircraft with their Avenger weapons systems, which are vehicle-mounted short-range air-defense systems that fire Stinger missiles.
The unit outmanoeuvred opposition forces, according to an Army release, taking out 15 simulated enemy aircraft with the Avengers and Stingers.
Battery C also protected eight assets that their command unit, the 1st Armoured Brigade Combat Team from the 1st Cavalry Division, deemed "critical."
Captain Christopher Vasquez, the commander of Battery C who acted as brigade air-defence officer for the exercise, linked his unit's performance to its experience with armour like that used by the 1st ABCT.
"It's given us some insight into how they fight, and how they operate," Vasquez said. "The type of unit we are attached to dictates how we establish our air defence plan, so if we don't understand how tanks manoeuvre, how they emplace, then we can't effectively do our job."
The second phase of the exercise, which will include live-fire drills, will take place from January 13 to January 25, 2019, at nearby Grafenwoehr training area, where Battery C is deployed.
Reestablishing air defence in Europe
The unit arrived in Europe earlier this year to provide air-defence support to US European Command under the European Deterrence Initiative, which covers Operation Atlantic Resolve.
During Operation Atlantic Resolve, the US Army has rotated units through Europe to reassure allies concerned about a more aggressive Russia, particularly after Moscow's 2014 annexation of Crimea and incursion in Ukraine.
Air Defence Artillery units like the 1-174th were for a long time embedded in Army divisions, but the service began deactivating them in the early 2000s, as planners believed the Air Force would be able to maintain air superiority and mitigate threats from enemy aircraft.
But the Army found in 2016 that it had an air-defence-capability gap. Since then it has been trying to correct the shortfall.
US soldiers in Europe have also been relearning air-defence skills that were de-emphasised after the threat of a ground war waned with the end Cold War.
In January, for the first time in 15 years, the US Army in Europe started training with Stingers, which have gained new value as a light antiaircraft weapon as unmanned aerial systems proliferate.
Operation Atlantic Resolve rotations have included National Guard units with Avenger defence systems to provide air-defence support on the continent. (The Army is also overhauling Avengers that were mothballed until a new air-defence system is ready.)
The service also recently reactivated the 5th Battalion, 4th Air Defence Artillery Regiment in southern Germany, making it the first permanent air-defence artillery unit in Europe since the end of the Cold War.
The battalion, composed of five Stinger-equipped batteries, returned important short-range air-defence abilities to Europe, said Colonel David Shank, head of 10th Army Air and Missile Defence Command, of which the unit is part.
"Not only is this a great day for United States Army Europe and the growth of lethal capability here," Shank said at the activation ceremony. "It is a tremendous step forward for the Air Defence Enterprise."
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