US Army air defense units are among the most overstretched in the US military, manning missile systems around the world to provide round-the-clock deterrence against adversaries such as North Korea, China , Iran and Russia.
In describing the problem to CNN, the Army’s highest-ranking air defense officer, Lt. Gen. Dan Karbler, recounted something an Army sergeant told him recently: “Sir, c is simple, pure math. We have more missions than we have air defense capability.
As demands mount with the war in Ukraine and amid looming concerns over a potential conflict with China, service chiefs have sounded the alarm that these critical missile defense units may be overstretched.
“It could go haywire quickly if not handled properly,” Maj. Gen. Brian Gibson, commander of the Army’s 94th Air and Missile Defense Command in Hawaii, told CNN.
The situation has gotten so bad that in 2020 the service conducted a survey of Air Defense soldiers and families, and recently worked to implement changes to relieve some of the pressure that those soldiers and their families feel.
The Army is offering enlistment bonuses of $47,500 to attract more applicants for certain air defense jobs, including operating Patriot missile batteries. It also embeds mental health specialists in air defense units around the world in an effort to address what has emerged as a troubling side effect of managing the front lines of US missile defense systems: burnout. professional.
“Right now the Army has ordered that we put behavioral health specialists in the formations,” said Karbler, who is commander of the Army’s Space and Missile Defense Command. “We have them there, and they will become a permanent part of these organizations.”
Almost constant deployment
The Air Defense Branch of the Army is one of the most frequently deployed branches of the service, with nearly 60% of its total force deployed at any one time. On average, air defense soldiers were less than a year home after a one-year deployment, while ideally they should be two to three years home after a year away. The Army has since increased that to two years at home for every one-year deployment – Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s “red line”, according to Karbler.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine last year, US air defense troops stationed in Europe have had to deploy on just hours’ notice to protect NATO’s eastern flank and help with training. from Ukraine. Meanwhile, in the Pacific, the US military is increasing its presence in the region to prepare for a possible future conflict with China – while maintaining its deterrence against North Korea. This is all on top of an ongoing mission in the Middle East, although the Pentagon has reduced some commitments in the region as partners have increased their own air defense capabilities.
Describing the problem to CNN, a senior Army air defense officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to speak freely, “We’ve been overworked and understaffed.”
long with the integration of mental health specialists, the army is also working to field entirely new air defense units over the next few years.
Leaders are also increasingly focusing on communicating with families early and often to help mitigate the unpredictable nature of work, especially when deployments are extended. A noncommissioned officer who deployed to the eastern flank early in the Russian invasion, Sgt. 1st Class Graham Kimmel, said he and his commanding officer organized a newsletter for families, through which they shared photos of their deployed soldiers and information they could share to keep families feeling up to date.
“We said they were leaving for six months, and now all of a sudden they’ve been extended for nine months, or they’re leaving for nine months and have been extended for 12 months, and in some cases have been extended over a year,” Karbler said of the Air Defense Forces. “This unpredictability has really, really affected soldiers and families,” he added, “and contributed significantly to the stress over strength.”
No signs of slowing down in the Pacific
In the Pacific, the pressure is often felt by the vastness of the region and the time and resources it takes to get from one place to another. In 2023 alone, the U.S. Army Pacific was scheduled to participate in 24 military exercises that are crucial to U.S. efforts to build relationships in the region, learn from each other, and strengthen partnerships in the event conflict arises. in the Pacific.
Gibson explained that it can take “an enormous amount of time” to get soldiers and equipment from place to place in the Pacific for exercises, and that there is “a growing momentum” on the part of partners in the region to “expand our scope and tempo of exercises”. and acting together.
This is in addition to the fact that units are often ordered into a higher state of readiness due to activity in the region, such as when North Korea launches a missile.
“I don’t see, today, a reduction in what potential opponents are doing in theater,” Gibson said. “I think there’s a real chance that it will continue to increase because of the actions led mainly by China and North Korea. But Russia also has quite significant roles to play in this theater, especially in the maritime and air domain.
“Business is good for air defence”
Brig. General Maurice Barnett, commander of the Army’s 10th Air and Missile Defense Command in Europe, said simply, “Unfortunately, business is good for air defense.”
Indeed, the need for a strong air defense has been on full display in the eyes of the world in Europe as Ukraine has struggled to thwart Russian military attacks since last February.
And for American soldiers tasked with providing partner defense, as well as training the Ukrainians to operate their own air defense systems, the stakes couldn’t be higher.
Staff Sgt. Carlos Retana, a Patriot Master Gunner, led the American Patriots’ training for Ukrainians in Europe after training at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. The training was unlike anything he had seen in his 23 years in the military, Retana told CNN — not only because of the Ukrainian troops themselves, whose age and experience military varied greatly from before the war, but also the very real consequences suspended. on training as motivation for American troops to teach their Ukrainian counterparts everything they know.
Retana said that ultimately the American coaches were “praying that what we were doing was enough” to teach the Ukrainians how to run the Patriot and get them back on the front lines.
“At the very end, it was bittersweet – it was happy that the training was over, and that [the Ukrainians] succeeded,” said Retana. “But it was also a very disturbing and heavy burden to think that they were heading to the wolf’s den… to go and fight.”
Being so close to the Ukrainians’ mission reaffirmed how essential air defense is for the Americans conducting the training, Retana said, and made the increased demands placed on them worth it. the penalty.
“It motivates people because it gives us meaning… You’re ready to do a lot more when you think what you’re doing makes sense.”
The demand for this mission has resulted in a decrease in the number of exercises the United States participates in with partners in Europe, Barnett said, bringing the total number from 18 to 12 this year. He added that the Army must “look for creative ways to meet mission demands” — because ultimately, mission demands don’t slow down.
“Our number one priority, of course, is taking care of our people,” Barnett said. “But that is only complemented by the fact that we have a mission to accomplish here. And I don’t think the American people, or our European allies, will take no for an answer.
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