Is the U.S. Army Getting Ready to Bring Back the 'Linebacker?'
Recent conflicts in Armenia, Iraq, Syria and Ukraine have demonstrated the widespread adoption of drones by state actors—as well as rebel and terrorist groups—for reconnaissance purposes and as improvised attack platforms carrying grenades or explosive charges. Most recently, Russian air-defense vehicles and electronic-warfare assets in Syria reportedly defeated a simultaneous rebel attack by thirteen kamikaze drones.
To counter such threats, ground forces needed fast-reacting Short-Range Air Defense systems, or SHORADS—and better yet, they need it come in a package that can move with frontline units on the battlefield, which the Army dubs “Maneuver SHORADS”.
For decades the U.S. military has counted on fighter jets to achieve air supremacy, and focused land-based defenses on long-range Patriot missiles as a counter to tactical ballistic missiles. But while long-range missiles and patrolling jet fighters may be able to engage a few drones at a time, both are impractical to employ against large numbers of tiny systems that might be dramatically cheaper than the missiles used to destroy them. In many cases, fighters and long-range SAMs will also simply be to far away to intervene against such small, low-flying threats in time, particularly if they are targeting frontline troops.
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But this leaves the U.S. Army in a pinch—since 2004 it has drastically downsized its SHORADS force from twenty-six battalions in 2004 to just nine, only two of them active-duty, and phased out its last armored antiaircraft system, the M6 Linebacker.
The Linebacker was a Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle, a twenty-seven-ton heavily armed tracked troop carrier, with its TOW antitank missile launcher swapped out for a four-round Stinger missile system, with eight reloads in the hull. The heat-seeking FIM-92 Stinger became famous in the 1980s when the United States smuggled hundreds of the missiles to mujahideen insurgents in Afghanistan, who used them to cripple the Soviet Union’s helicopter-centric counterinsurgency campaign. The fire-and-forget missiles home in on the heat signature of an aircraft, and can strike targets up to three to five miles away while traveling over twice the speed of sound.
Placing the Stinger on an armored vehicle allowed it to accompany advancing mechanized and tank formations on offensive operations without exposing the launcher to small-arms and light-artillery fire. The Linebacker retained the Bradley’s twenty-five-millimeter autocannon for ground engagements, which has limited application against low-flying helicopters.
The M6 saw plenty of combat in Iraq. For example, Tip of the Spear: U.S. Army Small Unit Actions in Iraq describes an engagement in April 2004 in which a Linebacker platoon of the Fifth Air Defense Artillery Regiment sustained damage from a rocket-propelled grenade near Abu Ghraib while destroying suspected roadside IEDs. Later the same day, an M6 from the unit blew up a taxi that was ferrying insurgent RPG teams.
Obviously, actions such as these did not involve any engagements against aerial targets. Unlike today, cheap civilian drone technology simply wasn’t that prolific then. As a result, starting in 2005 the U.S. Army spent millions of dollars converting its Linebackers back to standard M2 Bradley models, retiring the M6 entirely.
This has left the AN/TWQ-1 Avenger Humvee as the only mobile SHORADS system maintained by the U.S. military. The Avenger mounts two four-round Stinger pods, as well as an M3P .50 caliber machine gun—a faster-firing type better optimized for antiaircraft use than the more common M2. Four hundred remain in service with the Army and Marine Corps out of an original force of two thousand.
However, a Humvee is obviously more vulnerable than an armored fighting vehicle—and the heat-seeking Stinger has much shorter-range than air-defense systems such as the Russian Pantsir-S, which has multiple radars and radio-directed missiles that can strike targets twelve miles away or further. Nor is the Stinger’s dual infrared/ultraviolet seeker optimal for taking out drones, which generate less heat than a helicopter or jet fighter.