The Army’s inventory of antiaircraft weapons is badly in need of updating. As small drones proliferate rapidly on the modern battlefield, the service does not have enough of the right systems to defend against them. To address this need for tactical antiaircraft systems, the Army is working to procure and field directed-energy and high-power microwave air defense systems. Unfortunately, these are plagued by unrealistic expectations of their capabilities and employment—and remain locked in an expensive research and development cycle. To be sure, the Army should be actively pursuing solutions for the next war—solutions that might not be fielded for years to come. But it must balance that procurement with the imperative of meeting current demands. With recent video demonstrating the first fully autonomous drone kill in Ukraine, it is increasingly clear that those current demands are high, and the Army must be able to meet them tomorrow, not in twenty years.

Planned Capabilities

The Army has been working on directed-energy laser and high-powered microwave systems in hopes of fielding a flexible weapon that can rapidly engage and defeat swarms of small, low-flying targets without having to worry about ammunition consumption or target leading, as they would attack at the speed of light. These programs have been in development for over twenty years, and the Army is no closer to full operational capacity despite pouring in over $1 billion annually. The chief problems plaguing this innovative program portfolio are space, weight, power, cooling, and range. The inverse-square law applies ruthlessly to energy weapons. Simply put, as range to target increases, the energy of the weapon’s beam is reduced exponentially demanding huge scaling of weight and size for any increase in range. For any system that demands mobility on land, weight and size is a huge problem. Power consumption is also very high for these systems as energy weapons consume vast amounts of electricity. Moreover, Rayleigh scattering—the absorption of electromagnetic radiation by particles in Earth’s atmosphere—also contributes to weakening the beam even in ideal conditions, to say nothing of rain, snow, or fog. Worryingly, the Navy has been equally unable to field directed-energy weapons in anything beyond the prototype stage, despite the vast amounts of electrical power and space available on modern warships. If the Navy is unable to get its directed-energy program off the ground, it does not bode well for the Army and Air Force, both of which labor under much more restrictive engineering conditions. Even when these directed-energy systems are eventually fielded, their delicate electronic components and lenses will remain highly sensitive to shock, dust, cyberattack, and shrapnel.

In the meantime, there is no stop-gap capability for the Stinger missile, which has been out of production for two decades, has been planned to be phased out for years, and contains core electronics that have become obsolete. The Army hopes to select a vendor to go into replacement production for a new man-portable air defense system (MANPADS) in five years, an absurdly long time to wait for basic air defense protection given that highly capable MANPADS are available right now from our allies.

Planned Employment

There are two major issues with Army’s plan for its air defense. First, the Army is naturally reliant on the Air Force to maintain air superiority. This reliance has paid dividends in protecting soldiers against traditional air threats, such as enemy rotary- and fixed-wing close air support assets that have historically been the menace of ground maneuver units. While the Air Force is and will remain the masters of the air above a certain altitude, modern air superiority fighters are not ideal for handling slow, small, low-flying tactical unmanned aircraft systems. While fighter aircraft downed several cruise missiles and Shahed drones during Iran’s recent attempted bombardment of Israel, that attack was both highly telegraphed and took place in a region with total US and partner air supremacy. In the event of large-scale combat operations, it would not be prudent to assume that drones attacks will occur under such conditions.

This reality has been on full display in Ukraine, where the stalemate created by long-range air-to-air missiles and air defense systems maintain a state of nominal air parity, while both sides ground forces are shredded by tactical small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS), because their traditional airframes and air defense networks are not adequate fits to defeat the sUAS threat.

Below the level of Air Force coverage, the Army has developed a new air defense concept, outlined in its force structure transformation whitepaper published in February. Under the plan, the Army intends to stand up four new air defense battalions, developed around the Maneuver Short-Range Air Defense (M-SHORAD) system, bringing the total number of M-SHORAD battalions in service to eight. If these battalions are aligned with the Army’s maneuver divisions, division commanders would have somewhere around forty-four vehicles to provide tactical air defense across their maneuver brigades, as well as engineer, aviation, and sustainment brigades.

This is simply not enough butter for the bread. With only forty-four vehicles, maneuver commanders at the tactical level have little likelihood of benefiting from the M-SHORADs’ aerial coverage, let alone even seeing one of these unicorn systems. In keeping with the current utilization of the highly limited air defense systems available, division and brigade commanders will likely keep around half this number well behind the FLOT (forward line of own troops) to protect tactical operations centers and brigade support areas in order to maintain command-and-control and sustainment nodes, further reducing the number of M-SHORAD systems available to be attached to maneuver units.

For example, the 3rd Infantry Division, the smallest division in XVIII Airborne Corps, with only two armored brigade combat teams, still has eight maneuver battalions, as well as field artillery, engineer, sustainment, aviation, and division headquarters and headquarters battalions.

Dividing only forty-four vehicles to meet all these competing demands for tactical air defense against unmanned aircraft systems would stretch the single M-SHORAD battalion to its limits. Tactical commanders conducting an assault would need to request this capability, and task organization would have to occur at higher echelons to grant it, and it would lead to shortfalls in air defense for other units. Stripping coverage of brigade support areas and command-and-control nodes would be a risky tradeoff simply to have a bare minimum of coverage for maneuver formations during operations.

The planned development of these M-SHORAD battalions also does not address the need for tactical sUAS in the world of airborne, air assault, and traditional dismounted operations. While M-SHORADs will be delivered to light divisions, their basis on a Stryker will limit their ability to operate in the same kind of terrain as the maneuver formations they are ostensibly protecting, relegating them further to only protecting command-and-control and sustainment nodes.

This problem is compounded by the fact that without any progress in a replacement for the Stinger, light infantry units will be operating without access to any effective platform to defend against unmanned aircraft systems. So-called drone guns have seen mixed effectiveness in Ukraine for a variety of reasons, leading to them being largely abandoned by both sides in favor of other, cruder methods. This lack of an effective dismounted system means that light infantry units will be extremely vulnerable to the sUAS threat, and as dismounts they will naturally lack any of the protection and survivability provided by armored vehicles.

As of now, there is no readily available solution except for the Coyote system, so the Army’s research and development funding is going into projects that will not be completed for many years to come.

The Army has decided on purchasing Coyote interceptors from Raytheon to fill the need for low-altitude counterdrone munitions. Eventually, the hope is to provide one battery per M-SHORAD battalion, with most active-duty divisions getting one. The initial order is for 277 Coyote launcher systems, with 90 percent of them being fixed-site and immobile systems similar to a C-RAM and only 10 percent being mobile. Estimating that the nine new counter-sUAS batteries, which the Army also announced in its force structure transformation whitepaper, will have a similar loadout to an Israeli Iron Dome battery—a roughly equivalent organization—that means each will field around fifteen to twenty launchers, with the remainder of the 277 ordered being assigned to training and replacement. This is not nearly enough, and it does not account for the eight deployable Army National Guard divisions that would be left completely bereft of any modern air defense cover. Even a generous assumption of twenty Coyote launchers and a division-sized attack frontage ranging up to thirty kilometers would meaning spreading the capability so thin as to provide very minimum coverage, to say nothing of the vulnerability of the fixed-site Coyotes in the defense, and their near-uselessness in the offense.


With these shortcomings in both procurement and employment of the Army’s future air defense programs, there is currently a critical capabilities gap that any enemy equipped with even basic sUAS can exploit. The Army must invest in an immediately employable antiaircraft wall-of-lead system for use at the tactical level. This system should be designed to fit on existing mobile and survivable platforms such as the Bradley and the Booker, allowing it to keep pace with maneuver formations and survive hits or near misses from enemy sUAS.

Simultaneously, cheap MANPAD systems capable of defending against unmanned aircraft systems need to be developed to supplement antiaircraft coverage for dismounted formations. Armor and mechanized infantry crews must also be trained to conduct counterdrone operations.

The sUAS threat is here now, and without an immediate solution to counter this threat, US personnel will be unable to effectively protect themselves when on the receiving end of enemy drone attacks. This cannot be allowed to happen.

Major Peter Mitchell is an air defense officer and Strategic Studies instructor at the United States Military Academy at West Point.

Second Lieutenant Ben Phocas graduated from the United States Military Academy where he studied Defense and Strategic Studies. He was an intern for the National Center for Urban Operations and commissioned as an armor officer in May 2024.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.