With decades of assured
aerial dominance, ground force
anti-air warfare (AAW) has atrophied nearly to the point of abandonment. United States
Fairly recently, in fact, there were calls for removal of short range air defense (SHORAD) from the Marines.
“In the quest to transform into the Joint force of the future, many have advocated the removal of
Air Defense (SHORAD)1
systems from the Marine Corps. The belief that USMC forces have never utilized
Stinger2 in anger against an enemy, that the US will always possess air
supremacy, and that a network of sensors will allow the engagement of all
targets in the battle space have led to a perception that man portable short
range air defense is no longer required in the USMC.” (1) Short Range
“In August 2006, the USMC recommended the termination of the CLAWS [Complementary Low-Altitude Weapon System] program as part of cuts to spending on air defence capabilities.” (2)
Even Congress is aware of the air defense shortcomings.
“[House Armed Services] Committee Chairman Rep. Michael Turner, R-Ohio, asked what the Marines Corps is doing about its air defense vulnerability: “We are aware that the Marine ground units are almost wholly without an effective organic air defense system.” (5)
Very recently, there has been some renewed interest from the Marines as the realization that we can no longer count on uncontested aerial supremacy sinks in. Low end UAVs over the battlefield have also spurred some renewed interest. Let’s take a closer look at the Marine’s anti-air situation.
It is difficult to find current information on Marine Corps air defense capabilities but that appears to be, in large measure, because there aren’t many capabilities. If I've missed an active capability, let me know in the comments. That said, it seems that there are only two dedicated air defense units:
- 2nd Low Altitude Air Defense Battalion (2nd LAAD)
- 3rd Low Altitude Air Defense Battalion (3rd LAAD)
2nd Low Altitude Air Defense Battalion (2nd LAAD) is an air defense unit that is part of Marine Air Control Group 28 (MACG-28) and the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing (2nd MAW), II MEF, and is currently based at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point. The Battalion is composed of one Headquarters and Support Battery and two Firing Batteries (Alpha and Bravo).
- 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing (2nd MAW)
- Marine Air Control Group 28 (MACG-28)
- 2nd Low Altitude Air Defense Battalion (2nd LAAD)
3rd Low Altitude Air Defense Battalion (3rd LAAD) is an air defense unit that is part of Marine Air Control Group 38 (MACG-38) and the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (3rd MAW) , I MEF, and is currently based at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California.
- 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (3rd MAW)
- Marine Air Control Group 38 (MACG-38)
- 3rd Low Altitude Air Defense Battalion (3rd LAAD)
III MEF appears not to have a dedicated LAAD but uses detachments from other groups.
- 1st Marine Aircraft Wing (1st MAW)
- Marine Air Control Group 18 (MACG-18)
- Low Altitude Air Defense Detachments
Even the LAADs are limited in capability. They appear to operate only three weapons: Stinger missiles, 7.62 mm MG, and 0.50 cal MG (9) and only the Stinger is a credible, if short ranged, anti-air weapon. The weapons can be operated singly or mounted on an HMMWV which is then optimistically referred to as an Advanced Man-Portable Air Defense System (A-MANPADS). The addition of a single channel radio, a GPS, and a laptop apparently makes the HMMWV a “system”.
The LAAD is, essentially, a gunner with a Stinger on his shoulder.
Currently, there are no active armored mobile air defense vehicles in the Marines and no effective ability to engage cruise missiles.
The Marine’s entire air defense consists of Stinger missiles. The Marines are going to take on Chinese artillery, rockets, cruise missiles, ballistic missiles, aircraft, helos, and UAVs with just Stinger missiles. Yes, we fight jointly and the Marines will hope (desperately, frantically hope!) for support from the Navy and Air Force but, in a peer war, those forces will be fully engaged with their own concerns and anti-air support for the Marines will be sporadic and ineffectual, at best.
Reference Note: FIM-92 Stinger - man portable, surface-to-air, shoulder fired, supersonic missile designed to counter high-speed, low-level ground attack aircraft. It is capable of all aspect engagement. The current BLOCK I version is capable of destroying fixed and rotary wing aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles. Stinger missiles are five feet long and weigh thirty five pounds fully armed. Range is around 4 miles.
|LAAD - Stinger Surface to Air Missile|
How did we get to this point? Obviously, the lack of threats, until recently, influenced procurement and organizational decisions in a negative way. The war on terror has had a serious deleterious impact on military preparedness and force structure and we are only just beginning to climb out of the hole we’ve created – in fact, we’re only just beginning to even recognize that we’ve created a hole and stepped fully into it! The military lost sight of its main responsibility, peer warfare, in its zeal to use the war on terror to increase budgets.
Beyond the war on terror and lack of immediate threats, one of the relatively recent air defense concepts that heavily influenced procurement decisions was Sea Shield (part of the transformational plan along with Sea Base and Sea Strike). Sea Shield was envisioned to provide an air defense umbrella over the entire forward battlespace and littoral areas.
“Sea Shield extends precise and persistent naval defensive capabilities deep overland to protect joint forces and allies ashore.” (7)
Sea Shield was envisioned to utilize ship (Aegis), sea base, and aerial (Hawkeye, primarily, at the time) radars to establish comprehensive radar coverage and, thus, defensive capability. Implicit in this assumption was that the
would have absolute aerial dominance
so that, for example, E-2 Hawkeyes could operate close to the battlespace and
provide close, extensive coverage. This
is yet another example of the military having lost sight of its main
responsibility in favor of low end anti-terrorism and nation building
operations. Now, given the likelihood
that we’ll be hard pressed to establish even aerial parity in a peer war, high
value aviation assets like Hawkeyes will have to operate well back from the
active battlespace. UAVs will be shot
down with regularity and will provide only sporadic coverage. US
A further problem is that “fixed” radars cannot provide comprehensive coverage against low level threats and this has long been recognized. From a 2004 USMC paper,
“Radar horizon and terrain shadowing will also degrade these sensors because they are not designed to move with the maneuver forces. Consequently, maneuver forces will require an organic air defense capability for local protection from immediate, pop up, low-level air threats. This organic air defense capability is the Stinger missile system.” (1)
Curvature of the Earth further limits the coverage. Even elevation of the radar sensor cannot completely compensate for the various limits. As one example,
“225’ high Sea Based sensors will not be able to detect targets below 5,539 feet at a range of 110nm.” (1)
And this assumes no significant topographical rises like hills or mountains.
We see, then, that various short-sighted decisions, flawed beliefs, and loss of focus led to the current situation. It is obvious that ground forces need a mobile, local air defense capability. This need has been further emphasized by the recent boom in low altitude UAV operations and capabilities.
The irony is that as the air threats to ground forces have grown, the Marine’s air defenses have declined.
Near Future Developments
Ground Based Air Defense Future Weapon System (GBADFWS) – is currently being developed as a Joint Light Tactical Vehicle (JLTV) mounted system. The system uses Stinger missiles and an electronic warfare capability. Future plans include a laser variant. (3)
TPS-80 G/ATOR (Ground / Air Task Oriented Radar) – offers counterfire targeting and general situational awareness but, while air-sensing capable, is not currently linked to any anti-air weapon. It is a short to medium range, air-cooled, phased array radar that is intended to replace five current radar systems and augment the AN/TPS-59 long-range radar. A total of 45-57 G/ATOR systems are planned for procurement, depending on what source one reads. The system is claimed to be capable of detecting low observable targets.
The system consists of three major assemblies: (4)
- Trailer mounted and towed radar; towed by Medium Tactical Vehicle Replacement (MTVR)
- Communications module mounted on a JLTV or equivalent
- Power module mounted on a Medium Tactical Vehicle Replacement (MTVR)
G/ATOR is being developed and delivered in three blocks. (4)
- Block 1 develops the basic hardware and provides Air Defense/Surveillance Radar (AD/SR) capability. It replaces the AN/UPS-3, AN/MPQ-62, and AN/TPS-63 radar systems.
- Block 2 adds a ground counterbattery/counter-fire mission capability and replaces the AN/TPQ-46 radar system.
- Block 3 was a series of enhancements, including Identification Friend or Foe Mode 5/S, that are instead being incorporated into other blocks. The term Block 3 is no longer used.
- Block 4 replaces the AN/TPS-73 radar system for air traffic control capability, which will be a future development effort.
For the moment, the Marines are focused on short range AAW.
“Walsh [Marine Lt. Gen. Robert Walsh, deputy commandant for combat development and integration] said that the Marine Corps has been focused on countering threats from unmanned aerial systems -- a preferred weapon of extremists in the
Middle East -- but is now starting to shift
focus to longer-range threats such as aircraft and cruise missiles.” (3)
This is symptomatic of the Corps’ focus on very low end combat where UAVs are, indeed, a significant concern. When high level combat comes, however, the Corps will quickly learn that ballistic and cruise missiles, MLRS-type rocket barrages, and artillery barrages will be far more lethal and concerning than the presence of UAVs, though, admittedly, UAVs can lead to other types of attacks if allowed to collect targeting data.
The longest range anti-air weapon the Corps has is the Stinger missile and it is mounted on unprotected, glorified jeeps. In combat, those vehicles will be non-survivable. The Corps lacks any type of armored, mobile, anti-air vehicle.
The Corps is not only shedding armor and artillery but, lacking any type of counter-rocket/artillery/missile (C-RAM) weapon, is extremely vulnerable to enemy artillery.
With all these needs and gaps, how do the Marines expect to conduct successful assaults against peer opponents?
As noted, the range of threats encompasses much more than just UAVs and includes,
- Anti-cruise missile
- Anti-ballistic missile
- Anti-naval shell (artillery?)
The Marines are aggressively pursuing down-sized, down-armored, down-firepowered units that are predicated on battlefield mobility using aviation and light “jeeps”. This kind of unprotected, non-survivable force depends all the more on highly effective anti-air protection.
Consider just the artillery issue. Our light infantry forces will be decimated in a fight against an enemy with artillery unless we can employ extensive and effective C-RAM. Thus, the movement towards mobile, light, unprotected infantry ought to have triggered a concomitant development of a mobile, C-RAM vehicle and yet, illogically, it hasn’t.
Cruise and ballistic missiles have become a major threat. The Navy will attempt to provide protection via the Aegis system but, as the Marines move inland, the coverage umbrella will get progressively more porous especially against low flying cruise missiles. The Marine’s very mobility works against them as far as anti-air protection and, thus, demands a mobile, organic, anti-air system.
The Marine Corps is becoming a light infantry force despite claims of being a middle weight force and with little armor, no armored personnel carrier, no infantry fighting vehicles, and a heavy dependence on highly vulnerable “jeeps”, the infantry forces desperately need survivable (armored), organic, mobile anti-air protection.
Reference Note - Recent Terminated Systems
MIM-23 Hawk – medium range surface to air missile; semi-active radar homing; range 45-50 km; speed Mach 2.4; depending on version, a typical system consisted of a triple missile, towed launcher with associated radars and 36 reloads; terminated in 2002 in favor of Stinger systems
CLAWS (Complementary Low-Altitude Weapon System) – surface launched AMRAAM, fire and forget, surface to air missile; 4-5 missile launcher mounted on HMMWV; successfully demonstrated in 2005-6 and terminated in May 2006
LAV-AD – retired (8); combines a high-rate-of-fire 25 mm Gatling gun and short-range, infrared Stinger fire-and-forget missile (16 total, 8 ready); primary sensor is FLIR optical tracking although a Thales TRS 2630P radar capability is also being developed; the last of 17 systems was delivered in January 1999 (6); provides air defence for the light armored vehicle battalion, with a secondary ground defense role; vehicles are assigned to the light armored reconnaissance battalions
The Marines had credible anti-air systems but, unwisely, terminated them for various reasons, none good.
(1)DTIC, United States Marine Corps,School of Advanced Warfighting, Marine Corps University, Marine Corps Combat Development Command, “The Loss of USMC Man Portable Air Defense Capability”, Major Stephen G. Conroy, 2004,
(3)Military.com website, “Marines Developing JLTV Air-Defense System Armed with Laser Weapon”, Matthew Cox,
(4)DOT&E FY 2017 Annual Report, Jan 2018
(5)Marine Times website, “Marines add Stinger missiles, lasers to vehicles to make up for lagging air defense”, Todd South,
(6)Army Technology website,
(7)Dept. of the Navy, “Naval Transformation Roadmap, Power and Access…From the Sea, Sea Strike, Sea Shield, Sea Basing”, 2003?
(8)g2mil website, “Vital Amtrack Variants”, Carlton Meyer, 2017
(9)Marines website, “Low Altitude Air Defense (LAAD) Gunner’s Handbook”, MCRP 3-25.10A, 2011,