The US Army is practicing to take down enemy aircraft in the skies over Europe

US Army Stinger missileUS Army Sgt. Zachary Lohr, assigned to Battery C, 1-174 Air Defense Artillery Regiment, engaged simulated enemy aircraft with a Stinger missile during Combined Resolve XI at Hohenfels Training Area, Germany, December 7, 2018.US Army/Charles Rosemond

  • The US military has renewed its focus on great-power competition.
  • As part of that, it's preparing to take on a near-peer or peer adversary.
  • That includes training for situations in which US forces won't control the air.

The US military is shifting its focus toward preparing for great-power conflict, and on the ground in Europe, where heightened tensions with Russia have a number of countries worried about renewed conflict.

That includes new attention to short-range air-defense - a capability needed against an adversary that could deploy ground-attack aircraft, especially helicopters, and contest control of the air during a conflict.

Read more: NATO forces are relearning the lessons of the Cold War to face Russian threats

Between late November and mid-December, Battery C of the 1st Battalion, 174th Air Defense Artillery Regiment from the Ohio National Guard maneuvered across southeast Germany to practice shooting down enemy aircraft.

US Army soldiers air defense exercise camouflageUS soldiers from Battery C, 1-174 Air Defense Artillery Regiment conduct an after-action review during Combined Resolve XI at Hohenfels Training Area, Germany, December 7, 2018.US Army/Charles Rosemond

The unit worked with 5,500 troops from 16 countries during the first phase of Combined Resolve XI, a biannual US-led exercise aimed at making US forces more lethal and improving the ability of Allied militaries to work together.

At Hohenfels training area, soldiers from Battery C engaged simulated enemy aircraft with their Avenger weapons systems, which are vehicle-mounted short-range air-defense systems that fire Stinger missiles.

Read more: The US Army is gearing up for a potential fight with Russia, and it just put a crucial defensive weapon back in Europe permanently

The unit outmanuevered opposition forces, according to an Army release, taking out 15 simulated enemy aircraft with the Avengers and Stingers.

Battery C also protected eight assets that their command unit, the 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team from the 1st Cavalry Division, deemed "critical."

US Army Avenger Humvee missile Stinger air defenseAn Air Defense Artillery Humvee-mounted Avenger weapons system assigned to Battery C, 1-174 Air Defense Artillery Regiment during Combined Resolve XI at Hohenfels Training Area, Germany, December 7, 2018.US Army/Charles Rosemond

Capt. Christopher Vasquez, the commander of Battery C who acted as brigade air-defense officer for the exercise, linked his unit's performance to its experience with armor like that used by the 1st ABCT.

"It's given us some insight into how they fight, and how they operate," Vasquez said. "The type of unit we are attached to dictates how we establish our air defense plan, so if we don't understand how tanks maneuver, how they emplace, then we can't effectively do our job."

Read more: The Army's Ironhorse Brigade is taking a new route to its station in Europe, and it's another sign the US is preparing to fight on the continent

The second phase of the exercise, which will include live-fire drills, will take place from January 13 to January 25, 2019, at nearby Grafenwoehr training area, where Battery C is deployed.

Reestablishing air defense in Europe

US Army Germany Europe Bradley fighting vehicleA Bradley fighting vehicle provides security for Battery C, 1-174 Air Defense Artillery Regiment during Combined Resolve XI at Hohenfels Training Area, Germany, December 7, 2018.US Army/Charles Rosemond

The unit arrived in Europe earlier this year to provide air-defense support to US European Command under the European Deterrence Initiative, which covers Operation Atlantic Resolve.

During Operation Atlantic Resolve, the US Army has rotated units through Europe to reassure allies concerned about a more aggressive Russia, particularly after Moscow's 2014 annexation of Crimea and incursion in Ukraine.

Read more: The US Air Force is spending big to upgrade bases near Russia and testing out a 'base in a box' to make it easier

Air Defense Artillery units like the 1-174th were for a long time embedded in Army divisions, but the service began deactivating them in the early 2000s, as planners believed the Air Force would be able to maintain air superiority and mitigate threats from enemy aircraft.

But the Army found in 2016 that it had an air-defense-capability gap. Since then it has been trying to correct the shortfall.

US Army Stinger missile Avenger air defense systemAn FIM-92 Stinger missile is fired from an Army Avenger vehicle at the Eglin Air Force Base range, April 20, 2017.US Air Force/Samuel King Jr.

US soldiers in Europe have also been relearning air-defense skills that were deemphasized after the threat of a ground war waned with the end Cold War.

In January, for the first time in 15 years, the US Army in Europe started training with Stingers, which have gained new value as a light antiaircraft weapon as unmanned aerial systems proliferate.

Operation Atlantic Resolve rotations have included National Guard units with Avenger defense systems to provide air-defense support on the continent. (The Army is also overhauling Avengers that were mothballed until a new air-defense system is ready.)

Read more: 'We're getting a lot better': The head of the US Navy's newest fleet says it can counter one of Russia's favorite tactics

The service also recently reactivated the 5th Battalion, 4th Air Defense Artillery Regiment in southern Germany, making it the first permanent air-defense artillery unit in Europe since the end of the Cold War.

The battalion, composed of five Stinger-equipped batteries, returned important short-range air-defense abilities to Europe, said Col. David Shank, head of 10th Army Air and Missile Defense Command, of which the unit is part.

"Not only is this a great day for United States Army Europe and the growth of lethal capability here," Shank said at the activation ceremony. "It is a tremendous step forward for the Air Defense Enterprise."

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