Missing: Expeditionary Air Defense

Transforming the Marine Corps Topic Week

By Ben DiDonato

In the many discussions on the Marine Corps’ new Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations (EABO) concept, the subject of air defense seems to have largely fallen through the cracks and threatened a critical capability gap. More analysis must be focused on how these forces can be defended against various aerial threats and identify key capability gaps. By analyzing air defense across three broad categories, including advanced missiles, small drones, and traditional aircraft, EABO can be further strengthened as an operating concept.

Advanced Missiles

The most discussed aspect of air defense as it relates to EABO is China’s advanced long-range missiles. This discussion is often couched in vague terms and usually centered on phrases like “targeting problems,” but boils down to three key points in practice.

The first is distribution to minimize damage. Barring a nuclear warhead, the damage inflicted by these missiles is both limited and localized. Distributing Marines ashore instead of trying to control the same seas with multi-billion-dollar warships limits the damage these missiles can individually cause to a handful of casualties and/or a single piece of major equipment. This may still outweigh the cost of the missile, but the margin is much closer and makes it possible to invert the exchange ratio.

The second point is that distributing forces into smaller formations makes them more difficult to detect, track, and target. China has invested extensively in sensor systems optimized to engage large warships, and that very optimization means these systems will not be as effective at identifying Marines distributed in small units ashore.

Finally, the corollary to small, distributed formations being difficult for Chinese sensors to locate is that decoys will be highly effective. If the Marines deploy numerous effective decoys alongside distributed forces, China will be forced into an unwinnable dilemma. They can either not use their weapons out of lack of confidence, or they can expend them against numerous decoys and cause minimal damage to U.S. forces. While the U.S. obviously has various decoys available and troops of all kinds have repeatedly shown their ingenuity in improvising decoys in the field, there has not been much public discussion of new decoys and the critical importance of decoys to EABO’s success.

The conclusion is that while EABO can be an effective strategy for mitigating the high-end missile threat through effective softkill countermeasures, more could be done to emphasize the use of decoys to defeat these weapons. This is particularly important to deterrence because China cannot effectively factor in the U.S. ability to decoy their weapons into their decision-making if these capabilities are not publicly advertised to a certain extent.

Small Drones

While small, swarming drones and loitering munitions are a very serious threat in many environments and have received significant attention and investment as a result, the actual threat in the Indo-Pacific region is greatly limited by the distances involved. These small platforms simply do not have the range to cross the hundreds or thousands of miles of ocean that will be between U.S. forces and hostile territory in most cases.

That said, there may be some areas where Marines are close enough to hostile territory for drone swarms to be used, and it is also possible drone swarms could be launched from maritime platforms, particularly those of the People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia. There is still a need for distributable defenses against these platforms, and that need is being filled by the Marine Air Defense Integrated System (MADIS). This system should prove sufficient to contest this threat and protect Marines against small drones in a local area defense context, and its softkill mechanisms could prove invaluable for logistically intensive distributed operations. But it remains subject to debate whether the use of these jamming systems creates another telltale signature that could enable other forms of strike.

Twentynine Palms, Ca – 1st Lt. Taylor Barefoot, a low altitude air defense officer with Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 163 (Reinforced), 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit, programs a counter-unmanned aircraft system on a Light Marine Air Defense Integrated System (LMADIS) during a predeployment training exercise at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, Calif., Nov. 13, 2018. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Dalton S. Swanbeck)

Traditional Aircraft

This threat category has been badly neglected in most discussions of EABO and risks completely collapsing the concept if ignored. The Marines currently do not have an organic anti-aircraft weapon capable of engaging high-altitude targets, making Marines poorly defended against a multitude of airpower tactics. Whether it be bomber attacks or drone strikes, Marines are currently defenseless against any aircraft at even medium altitude, and there do not seem to be plans to remedy this problem aside from hoping the joint force can provide the needed capabilities.

This oversight transforms many of China’s older and/or less capable aircraft like the H-6 bomber and Wing Loong drone into significant threats. They could loiter for long durations over islands suspected to have Marines at more than 20,000 feet, allowing them to perform detailed surveillance to help distinguish decoys from Marines and striking forces at their discretion. While it is true U.S. fighters could inflict casualties against these aerial assets, contesting advanced bases within an adversary’s weapons engagement zone makes it more likely that the adversary has greater counter-air capabilities and local air superiority. Attempting to interdict Chinese strikes against advance bases with airpower could draw U.S. fighters into exchanges featuring lopsided force ratios and exacerbate dependencies on limited tanking assets. Surface-to-air missiles on the other hand can sit persistently on islands to deter or contest hostile strikes, and can be rapidly repositioned after an engagement if sufficiently mobile.

Since the retirement of the MIM-23 Hawk, the only surface-to-air missile in Marine Corps service is the aging FIM-92 Stinger. Since the Stinger is first and foremost a man-portable system, it simply does not have the kinematic performance to engage aircraft unless they choose to come down to low altitude. But if there is no threat of high-altitude surface-to-air capabilities, aircraft will not be forced to lower altitudes where they can then be made susceptible to shorter-range systems like Stinger. Air defense therefore requires both high and low-altitude systems to effectively contest and deny airspace across its various dimensions and manipulate adversary air assets into maneuvering through engagement zones. The MIM-104 Patriot missile in active service can engage higher altitude targets, but Patriot is perhaps too large or logistically intensive to distribute as envisioned by EABO. It is also worth mentioning the National Advanced Surface to Air Missile System (NASAMS), which is in limited service protecting Washington DC, since this is a medium-range system which is smaller and lighter than Patriot. However, it is still a multi-vehicle networked system which would likely still be too difficult to deploy in the distributed, low-footprint manner envisioned by EABO.

Looking abroad, the closest to a suitable system is the Russian Buk which, while intended to operate as a networked, multi-platform system like Patriot and NASAMS, is also capable of operating as a self-contained, standalone single-vehicle system. Its unusual Transporter Erector Launcher And Radar (TELAR) combines medium-range missiles capable of engaging aircraft at any altitude with a radar, generator, and fire control center to allow it to be used with no external support systems. This makes it far more suitable to the distributed operations envisioned by the Marine Corps since a useful capability could be achieved with just one vehicle, and without the need for waiting for other enabling vehicles to be set up and connected. Such a capability should be able to facilitate the shoot-and-scoot tactics of distributed forces as well.

Of course, the Russian Buk is obviously not an option for the United States, but the U.S. should develop a similar single-vehicle, medium-range surface-to-air missile system, most likely using the RIM-162 Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile (ESSM). This missile is both smaller and more capable than the Russian missile, so an American system designed primarily to act as a standalone, land-based ESSM platform would be significantly more capable than Buk’s TELAR.

Conclusion

The current EABO concept, in conjunction with current developments, is broadly suitable for defending against advanced missiles and small swarming drones, but features a critical capability gap against traditional aircraft and large drones. Moving forward, the Marines should place more emphasis on decoys, both in messaging and procurement, and should also continue with the current MADIS program. However, by far the most critical step the Marines must take to make EABO workable is the urgent development of a medium-range air defense system.

Ben DiDonato is a volunteer member of the NRP-funded LMACC team lead by Dr. Shelley Gallup. He originally created what would become the armament for LMACC’s baseline Shrike variant in collaboration with the Naval Postgraduate School in a prior role as a contract engineer for Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control. He has provided systems and mechanical engineering support to organizations across the defense industry from the U.S. Army Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center (CERDEC) to Spirit Aerosystems, working on projects for all branches of the armed forces. Feel free to contact him at Benjamin.didonato@nps.edu.

Featured Image: U.S. Marines with the Ground Based Air Defense Program, conduct a demonstration of the Light-Marine Air Defense Integrated System (L-MADIS) and FIM-92 Stinger Missile, on Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia, June 30, 2021. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Tia Dufour)

15 thoughts on “Missing: Expeditionary Air Defense”

  1. Medium range air defense does appear to be a weakness of the current EABO concept for the reasons you listed. I think NASAMs is currently the best option. It may not be self contained in a single vehicle, but each vehicle in the system is relatively small and light. No need for HEMTTs or LVSes. It will all fit on HMMVs/JLTVs and FMTV/MTVRs.

    This gives you the option of AIM-9X, AMRAAM or AMRAAM-ER. Perhaps in the future even JATM.

    Even a long-range air defense would be a valuable EABO capability, if it can assist in screening and protecting friendly naval forces. The Patriot Minimum Engagement Package is around 280t and takes up between 350-400m2 of deck space. Would be nice to have something somewhat lighter, but the necessary radar isn’t going to be small.

    I wonder how much effort would be involved in adapting SM-2 BLK IIIC to give NASAMS an extended range capability? Or even SM-6, though this would likely require a larger vehicle.

    1. NASAMS was also my first thought for an interim system since it can be purchased off the shelf, but multiple vehicles quickly add up to a huge transportation and logistics footprint even if they’re individually smaller. The other issue with NASAMS is missile logistics because the standard AMRAAM doesn’t really have the performance required when ground launched and overcoming that with AMRAAM-ER adds a new missile type. That said, it should be possible to repackage NASAMS onto a single larger vehicle, probably LVSR, and integrate ESSM (since they’re both Raytheon products) to get the job done.

      Of course, the flipside of that is that I doubt it would be any harder for Lockheed to build an Aegis-based system on a single vehicle since it already talks to ESSM and they have their own radars, so it shouldn’t be too hard to get a good competition going.

      Also, while I have no inside information about the AIM-260 JATM, its range makes me suspect it’s powered by a ramjet and thus unsuitable for ground launch without modification.

      Moving on to your comments about Patriot, I think you answered your own question with the shipping footprint. It’s a great system, but a LVSR-based single vehicle system would likely have a weight on the order of 35 tons (like the Buk TELAR) and a footprint of 27.5 m2. When you factor in an emplacement/displacement time that would likely be measured in seconds, it’s clear which system makes more sense for EABO. That said, Patriot does have an important role to play in defending the large inspection forces required at obvious straits which I will discuss in an upcoming article which is currently waiting on editing.

      Finally, the SM-2 is way too much missile for this application. It’s bigger and longer range than Patriot, so a system built around it would be even bigger than Patriot.

      1. Cramming everything into a single vehicle does have drawbacks.

        LVSRs (or Buk TELARs) can’t be flown by C-130s, or lifted by MV-22s or CH-53s. So moving them around to EABO operating areas will be more cumbersome. They’d have to be offloaded by LAW or LCAC, or at a suitably large pier.

        LVSRs also have more limited off road mobility than HMMVs or JLTVs. Narrow roads or rickety bridges are probably no-goes.

        Also, you can’t take as much of advantage of geography. You could fly or drive a Sentinel up to a peak to extend its radar horizon. OTOH, there may not be a LVSR-compatible road to the top.

        A system like NASAMs can be scaled down or up, depending on the need, in finer increments. Just add another radar trailer, or a couple more launchers.

        Also, if your all-in-one system is hit, you lose your surveillance radar, fire control and launcher. If a NASAMs radar is hit, the other components can still survive.

        NASAMs may have a larger deck footprint, but may not weigh much, if any, more. 35 tons is like 6-7 HMMWVs.

        AMRAAM-ER is an oddity to me. It seemed to come out around the same time as ESSM Blk 2, with a very similar AMRAAM-derived active radar. I wonder how hard it would be to adapt ESSM Blk 2 to NASAMs and ditch AMRAAM-ER?

        My thought on SM-2 would be to add it to the NASAMs portfolio, not design a new system around it. Basically use its (potential) presence to threaten long-range, mid-to-high altitude surveillance aircraft and drones . It’s about twice as heavy as ESSM (but lighter and shorter than PAC-2). The Blk IIIC variant also has an AMRAAM-derived active seeker. So no need for terminal illumination like PAC-2. This greatly simplifies the system needed to support it.

        NASAMs 3 will have the option of using the larger GhostEye MR radar, derived from the Patriot’s LTAMDS radar, opening up longer-range detections and engagements.

        https://www.raytheonmissilesanddefense.com/what-we-do/missile-defense/air-and-missile-defense-systems/ghosteye-mr

        1. Yeah, airlift does become an issue, although the ranges involved push you towards LAW or a bigger aircraft anyways.

          Ground mobility is also an issue for LVSR, but you have to balance that against availability. My preference would be an amphibious tracked platform for obvious reasons, but that requires more design and testing so I wouldn’t want to hold the project up on that. Better to settle for LVSR in the short term and then figure out a better platform later.

          Your next point is about tactics which I won’t go into, although I do want to point out that parking in an obvious location like a prominent peak makes you easier to find and kill.

          Also, on the subject of mobility, a critical advantage of a single vehicle system is emplacement/displacement time. Any kind of trailer takes time to set up and break down, while a single vehicle system can be folded with the push of a button and transition in seconds. That brings the benefits of shoot-and-scoot tactics to medium-range air defense, and the active seekers in modern missiles mean you can pack up the vehicle the moment the last missile clears the tube. Combine that with a separate spotter, likely just a dismounted Marine watching the sky, and you gain the ability to roll the vehicle out of cover, engage, and withdraw back into cover in perhaps as little as a minute. This is a huge deal for EABO which relies heavily on distributed assets and popup threats to prevent counterattack, and is why a single-vehicle solution is so critical.

          With regards to scaling, you have it backwards. NASMS only operates at a large scale because you need a fleet of vehicles and at least a dozen highly trained people to operate it. Scaling down further is precisely the driving force behind a single-vehicle system since it means you only have to support one vehicle and probably three crew forward. When it comes to EABO, distribution and small-scale operation is everything, and a multi-vehicle system like NASMS just isn’t well suited to that, especially since these minimum operating packages will also be completely out of action with a single hit. That said, there’s nothing stopping you from allowing the single-vehicle system to plug into a larger network if needed, but that would be a secondary capability as far as the Marines are concerned since they don’t need a major air defense system to cover a large ground force.

          Moving on, I have the same questions about the difference between AMRAAM-ER and ESSM and haven’t gotten the chance to ask Raytheon so I can’t help you there.

          Finally, I see what you’re getting at with regards to adding SM-2 to NASAMS now, but I don’t see why you’d want to do it. It basically just transforms NASAMS into a Patriot competitor, but there’s no way the US Army is going to switch and I don’t think the Norwegians operate SM-2 so I doubt they’d bother on their own. Throw in the fact that it would basically be Raytheon competing against themselves and I just can’t see it happening.

          1. Buk actually requires multiple vehicles and more crew for a full system too. TELARs requires a separate Target Acquisition Radar (TAR) vehicle and a command vehicle to form a complete battery. The TELAR radar is only for fire control, not search.

            Kongsberg signed a contract back in 2019 to develop a mobile version of NASAMs that used IRIS-T missiles.

            https://www.kongsberg.com/newsandmedia/news-archive/2019/contract-to-deliver-mobile-ground-based-air-defence-to-the-norwegian-army-worth-583-mnok

            Obviously wouldn’t have the altitude or range performance of even AMRAAM, but would be an integrated solution. Note, it only carries a short-ranged radar.

            I expect you could build something similar on an FMTV or MTVR that used the full suite of NASAMs missiles. It just might not be able to carry a very large search radar either, though Sentinel might work.

            You can install Sentinel on the bed of a HMMWV or JLTV if you really wanted a more pack-n-go solution. Here’s Sentinel on the back of a smaller G-wagon.

            https://www.armyrecognition.com/norway_norwegian_army_missile_systems_vehicles_uk/mpq-64f1_3d_radar_vehicle_nasams_technical_data_sheet_specifications_pictures_video_12712155.html

            So you may be able to package a fully HMMWV-based NASAMs solution: High Mobility Launchers, Sentinel on HMMWV, and a FDC in a HMMWV shelter vehicle.

            A minimum package of three launcher vehicles, an FDC and a Sentinel vehicle (five HMMVs plus some trailers total) would be lighter than a Buk TELAR vehicle and all components could be lifted by MV-22.

            Note, rotary lift isn’t just for long range deployment. There are some islands in the first island chain that have “highly austere” pier facilities, to the point of being downright dangerous. This is the pier at Itbayat Island, for example.

            https://www.discoverthephilippines.com/chinapoliran-seaport/

            It may be preferable and safer to helo lift EABO components to this island even if LAWs are available.

          2. To be frank, the details of Buk’s operation don’t matter because we’re never going to procure a Russian system. I brought it up as an example of what could be done and won’t dive into the details of its operation.

            Moving on, the bulk of your comment is discussing configuration options. That Norwegian vehicle illustrates the concept, although the radar and missiles are obviously smaller since they’re looking at shorter range engagements. The smaller trucks are also obviously better if the engineers can get everything on them, but I don’t want to over-prescribe a solution there.

            Finally, your points about airlift are largely irrelevant. Even the V-22 has abysmally short range when compared to the distances involved, so we would have to bring large, vulnerable amphibs deep into China’s A2/AD network if we want to use them. I will grant that it’s possible LAW could have some aviation facilities which may be able to accommodate an aircraft capable of lifting a HMMWV, but even if it does it’s unlikely it’ll be able to generate the sortie rate needed to get the five vehicles you propose ashore in a reasonable amount of time. This is exactly why the Marines are pushing for LAW, a ship with the range to get where it needs to go and landing capabilities to let it put equipment ashore on an unimproved beach.

      2. Plan the fire vehicle off a pick-two of mobility, missile range, and radar capability:

        Buk can track and shoot from one vehicle, but is very limited without a search radar.

        Several designs can search, track, and shoot from one vehicle, but all have short rage missiles.

        I don’t know of any fielded systems which cram medium- to long-range missiles and multifunction radar onto one vehicle; probably because it’d be huge and expensive.

        As far as missiles, a multi-vehicle system makes integration easier because you just need a common data standard and you can shoot either/both from the same radar vehicle.

        With a little more, a ground system could cue off airborne or ship radar, and stay passive until firing, making any ground capable parking the vehicles a potential SAM threat; in which case vehicle portability becomes very important and large all-in-one systems much less useful.

  2. This is an alarming report. At one point I worked for a DOD contractor, PLEXSYS Inc. I was p;eased to work with Marine Air Traffic controllers during simulated war exercises. Often at “Roving Sands” one of the largest joint air defense conducted at the time (2010 -2014).Each time the Marines would out perform the Air Force, Navy, Army and Air national Guard units. I am concerned about America’s military readiness against future threats.

    1. Yeah, the Marines are great, but they’re not magical. Without a weapon capable of reaching high altitude, even the 1950’s-vintage H-6 bomber the Chinese are so fond of might as well be invincible and will be able to bomb them with impunity.

  3. In the Comment and Discussion section of the May 2022 Proceedings, I suggested looking at taking the Army’s C-RAM system and substituting the SeaRAM version of the CIWS for the cannon version. This would provide a system with an 11-round launcher and onboard cuing with greater reach than Stinger and also modes against cruise missiles, aircraft and small surface targets. My suggestion would be put existing components together for an experiment. It still requires a large vehicle or trailer but is still self-contained and could accept external cuing as well.

    1. Bringing SeaRAM ashore is an interesting idea, although I think it has more applicability to the Army than the Marines. For the Army it would be a good intermediate option between Stinger and Patriot, but the Marines need the ability to reach high altitude as I point out in the article.

      That said, it would be a relatively cheap system to prototype as you point out, so it’s worth putting together so both services can try it, and if neither one goes for it you can always convert the SeaRAM back to naval use.

  4. Great ideas being kicked around here. I’d recommend using containerized form factors similar to the Kalibr concept to increase the difficulty of distinguishing the systems and making it easier to put out decoys. Bi/tri/quadcons could be used for smaller components/shorter range weapons. A twenty footer is much larger than existing SHORAD vehicles but easily transportable on small ships and medium trucks, civ or mil. If the decision is made to field longer range weapons, larger containers would retain concealment and transportation options.

  5. Couple things,

    1) I’m trying to find an example of an all-in-one, medium range SAM system. There are many examples of all-in-one V/SHORADs, but I haven’t seen one that’s higher tier. They all separate the launcher from the radar and command vehicle. The closest I’ve seen is the 9K33 Osa, but it’s still a SHORADs.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/9K33_Osa

    And Osa requires a substantial, 9+m long vehicle.

    2) Not sure what suitable tracked, amphibious chassis options are out there. We’re divesting AAVs. BvS10 or Bronco are options, but they’re not ship-to-shore amphibious. The Army is looking at both for their arctic CATV requirement. ACV is about the only practical option for an actual ship-to-shore, amphibious vehicle.

    3) Watch some of these videos of the road networks on the Batanes islands. This is the type of infrastructure EABOs are going to have to traverse. These vids were taken on motorcycles. Now imagine trying to drive an 11m long, 2.5m wide LVSR down those roads. Not going to happen.

    https://www.travelimagez.com/asia/philippines/drivelapse-movies-batanes/

    Heck, even a HMMWV might be too wide. If that’s the case, developing an Army ISV-based NASAMS might be worthwhile. I suspect a MRZR isn’t powerful enough to tow NASAMs trailers.

    1. Apologies for posting this reply out of context. I thought I hit the correct Reply button but it went to the bottom.

      I wonder if you could do a “mostly”-in-one solution using the BvS10 or Bronco articulated vehicles. The NASAMs missile launcher could fit on the rear section, with the launch control in the front. The front section could also house a lightweight radar like the ones used for MADIS, and an EO/IR optic for passive detection and tracking. The Rada radar isn’t as capable as Sentinel or Ghost Eye MR, but its larger ieMHR cousin lists some useful detection ranges.

      https://www.rada.com/products/iemhr

      Medium -Size UAV 45 Km
      Heavy Transport Aircraft 100 Km
      Fighter 65 Km
      Fighter – Low RCS 35 Km
      Utility Helicopter 45 Km

      It would still benefit from a separate, longer-range detection radar, but a single vehicle could act semi-autonomously.

  6. The Buk is doing well in Ukrainian service right now, proving the value of a mobile medium-range SAM capability, but it isn’t single-vehicle or as off-road capable as the USMC would want. Obviously we’d be trying to replicate the spec rather than the system itself, but physics still applies even if US tech is better.

    Rather than trying to build a single vehicle with either two radars or a 360-capable multipurpose unit, and missiles of sufficient range, and somehow small enough to be useful, we’re better off looking at multi-vehicle truck-based complexes.

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