by Darien Cavanaugh. He is writing on politics, foreign policy, global conflict, and weapons platforms has been published at War is Boring, offiziere.ch, The National Interest, Real Clear Defense, Yahoo! News, The Week, Global Comment, and the Center for Securities Studies. To see more of his work, visit his website.
In March of 2018, soldiers of the 678th Air Defense Artillery Brigade (678th ADA) officially uncased their colors in a ceremony at the U.S. Army Garrison Ansbach’s Von Steuben Community Center in Ansbach, Germany. An Army press release stated “The ceremony symbolized the start of the 678th ADA’s forward deployment in Europe in support of U.S. Army Europe’s Operation Atlantic Resolve and NATO regionally aligned partner forces.”
U.S. Army Col. Richard A. Wholey Jr., commander of the 678th ADA, was quoted as saying that the 678th ADA was the first Air Defense Artillery Brigade to uncase its colors in Europe “since the Cold War drawdown”. An article in The Military Times added that the 678th ADA would “provide pivotal short-range air defense (SHORAD) coordination for U.S. forces in Europe, a capability found lacking when compared to the Russian military’s assets on display in the Ukraine conflict.”
That same month, the Army resumed its Roving Sands missile-defense maneuvers, a two-week training exercise involving 1,800 soldiers from Fort Bliss at the White Sands Missile Range outside of El Paso, Texas. The soldiers trained with Avenger, Patriot, and Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile systems capable of shooting down short-, medium-, and intermediate-range ballistic missiles. Roving Sands was a regular training event from 1989 through the early 2000s but it was discontinued in 2005. While the Army did not disclose its specific reasons for resuming the exercise, an article in The Army Times underscored that “Congressional testimony in recent years has signaled missile overmatch concerns with Russia in Europe, the growing ballistic missile threat of North Korea’s military, and missile defenses being built in Iran”.
It turns out that the reactivation of the 678th ADA and the resumption of Roving Sands were relatively small components of the U.S. Army’s broader efforts to adjust to new threats it saw presented by Russia in Ukraine. In early July, the Army announced that it has been conducting new pilot Stinger missile course for soldiers in maneuvers units since 2017 and plans to form 10 new SHORAD battalions that will feature the new Maneuver SHORAD (M-SHORAD) on the Stryker platform. The M-SHORADs will boast two hellfire missiles, a 30mm chain gun, a 7.62 machine gun, and four Stinger missiles. The first prototypes were scheduled to roll off the assembly line in late July.
Commenting on these new SHORAD programs, Col. Mark A. Holler, commandant of the Air Defense Artillery School at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, stated that the conflict in Ukraine had been a “wake-up call” for the Army in general and specifically for its air-defense forces. A subsequent Army Times article also noted that the changes were intended “to counter what’s being seen in Ukraine and elsewhere”.
Ukraine’s civil war, which is often referred to as the War in Donbass, pits pro-Russian separatist rebels based in the eastern Donbass region of the country against the national government and allied militias. It has been a source of frustration for NATO since hostilities broke out in April of 2014. The conflict stems from the Euromaidan protests that erupted in November of 2013 when the government of then-President Viktor Yanukovych, who had close ties to Moscow, refused to finalize an association agreement with European Union (EU). Yanukovych signaled that Ukraine might join the Eurasian Economic Union with Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan instead, in part because Russia was Ukraine’s largest trade partner at the time.
Pro-EU protests began occurring in cities across the northern and western regions of Ukraine, and sometimes escalated into deadly clashes between police and protestors. The protests eventually culminated in the Ukrainian Revolution of 2014, which saw Yanukovych fleeing to Russia in February and being replaced by Arseniy Yatsenyuk, a leader of the Batkivshchyna (All-Ukrainian Union “Fatherland”) political party. As power was transitioning in Ukraine, Russian forces seized Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, home of the strategic important Sevastopol Naval Base, and then came to the aid of pro-Moscow separatists who had been organizing in Donbass, where a large portion of the population is ethnically Russian. In a matter of weeks, the rebels gained control of several cities in Donbass
When Ukrainian forces began a major push to retake rebel-held towns and cities in the summer of 2014, Russia sent troops, artillery, and armor across the border into Ukraine to support the rebels. It also provided the rebels with SHORAD missile systems, including man-portable Igla surface-to-air missiles and medium-range vehicle-mounted anti-aircraft missiles such as the Buk. In addition, Russia positioned several surface-to-air missile batteries and radar systems along its border with Ukraine.
The SHORAD capabilities of the rebels caught the Ukrainian military off guard. It is difficult to provide an exact count because of conflicting reports from the Ukrainian government and the rebels, but it is clear that approximately 20 Ukrainian military aircraft were shot down in the War in Donbass during the spring and summer of 2014. Ukrainian officials claimed that one of the planes was downed by a Russian surface-to-air missile, and that another was shot down by a Russian MiG-29 fighter with an air-to-air missile it reportedly fired from inside Russian air space. However, most of the aircraft were taken down by rebels using the Iglas, Buks, and other anti-aircraft weapons provided by Russia.
The Ukrainian aircraft that were shot down included multiple Su-25 close-air support jets, MiG-29 fighter jets, Mi-24 attack helicopters, and Mi-8/17 transport helicopters, as well as one Su-24 attack jet, one An-26 transport plane, one An-30 surveillance plane, and one Il-76 strategic airlifter. The downing of the Il-76 inflicted the highest number of single-event casualties for the Ukrainian Air Force to date in the civil war, with 40 soldiers and nine crew members dying in the attack. In an October 2018 report from The National Interest on the state of Ukraine’s air force, Sebastian Roblin noted that Kiev had withdrawn all of its military aircraft from combat missions in the civil war by the end of August of 2014 in order “to avoid unsustainable losses”. Roblin added, “They have not shown up over the frontlines since”.
The rebels’ Russian-supplied anti-aircraft weapons arguably would not have been as effective against more advanced aircraft from the U.S. or other NATO countries, but the fact that Russia was able to so easily neutralize Ukraine’s air force by proxy nevertheless came as a surprise to Western intelligence. It suggested that NATO had underestimated the threat Russia could pose to its member states, especially those in Eastern Europe, or countries that are potential members. The U.S. Army’s new SHORAD programs are, at least in part, a response to that miscalculation.
Each U.S. Army division used to host a SHORAD battalion, but as the Pentagon’s attention shifted from near-peer adversaries like Russia and China to focus on counterterrorism and counterinsurgency concerns after the September 11 attacks, the SHORAD battalions were phased out. By 2017, no U.S. Army division had a SHORAD battalion, according to an Army press release. The plan to add 10 new SHORAD battalions to the Army’s ranks is part of the Pentagon’s broader shift back to preparing for larger conflicts against near-peer adversaries.