We'll Be Ready
Ever-present in the posturing of today's dictators is the threat of the Tactical Ballistic Missile.
Earlier this week, the first Terminal High Altitude Air Defense Missile System to be employed in South Korea became operational to deter the North Korean threat. Iran currently holds a considerable stockpile of TBMs in the Middle East, and Houthi militants in Yemen regularly employ the use of Soviet-era missiles in their ongoing war with Saudi Arabia.
"I call them coward attacks," said, Capt. Clifton Parker, an Air Defense officer currently serving as battle captain for the 108th Air Defense Artillery Brigade.
Air Defense is Parker's trade. He calls it a security blanket for the world.
"As technology advances, weapon systems need to be created to combat those things," said Parker. "Air Defense is the way of the future when it comes to warfare."
Parker and his soldiers are currently deployed to Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, a logistics hub for coalition forces operating in the Middle East. From their operations center, the soldiers of the 108th ADA coordinate the air defense of all U.S. assets in the region.
The magnitude of their responsibilities raises many challenges for leaders like Parker, in particular, how to train Soldiers while in the midst of an ongoing mission.
During the 108th's most recent exercise, the annual Air and Missile Defense Exercise, the operations center was split into two elements. One to carry on the real-world mission and one to execute a simulated air battle incorporating all Air Defense assets in the region.
"Really, for me and my soldiers, it was no different than any of the other days that we've been out here," said Staff Sgt. Joseph Rewerts, a battle systems operator in the 108th ADA.
Rewerts and his team have been monitoring the airspace since they first arrived at Al Udeid five months ago. Anything that flies above the ground comes up on their systems and is added to the unit's combined operating picture, represented by a four-paneled flat screen television display hanging overhead in the operations center.
Tiny stick figure representations of planes, ships and missiles tick across a map of the region; green for friendly forces and red for enemy forces.
"Our job is primarily to track the air feed and be ready just in case something were to happen," said Rewerts.
In the event of an attack, Rewerts and his team would be among the first to see it, initiating the split second decision making process leading to the destruction of the enemy missile threat. This process is known as “the kill chain.”
Rewerts splits the responsibilities of the exercise and the real-world mission with his team to prevent miscommunication. To the untrained eye, the actual data and the simulation are hard to differentiate, each having their own regular level of activity.
"Syria launches all the time,” said Rewerts. “Iran launches within Iran. We see hostile ships coming near our areas of operations, but never close enough."
Rewerts uses this as a tool to keep his soldiers from becoming complacent.
"We constantly have situational awareness," said Rewerts. "I think it's a lot easier for someone who's not seeing that all the time to be comfortable with their surroundings."
The emphasis on constant vigilance is prevalent throughout the brigade.
"There could be an air battle at any moment," said Maj. Ervin Williams, the 108th ADA's senior logistics officer. "The division commander has a saying, 'are you going to be ready at the moment of truth?"
The U.S. Army has not used the Patriot Missile System, the mainstay of Army Air Defense, in combat, since the onset of the Iraq War. With nearby countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates conducting successful engagements using Patriot Missiles against Houthi-fired missiles as recently as August 2016, the pressure to perform precisely when needed is high.
During the AMDEX, Williams had to balance the challenge of coordinating supplies within the simulation with real-world mission demands. In each scenario, the fate of the mission rests in the hands of the logistician.
"We're here to provide defense for our area of responsibility against TBMs," said Williams. "Not having the munitions to do that job would allow those countries or forces that would do us harm to actually affect disaster in the areas that we've been charged to defend."
After the conclusion of the exercise, the Soldiers of the 108th ADA breathed a collective sigh of relief. Instead of having to account for the air defense of two regions of the world, they can go back to defending one.
“There's a method to the madness,” said Parker. “When you must be able to react at a moment’s notice, you need to train to perform effectively and violently.”
"Every time I approach this, I approach it like it’s the real deal," said Parker. "The way that you put it on the practice field is the way you execute."
Our world has been fortunate enough to have never seen the effects of a large-scale missile fight. Without knowing what to expect, the only choice is to train for the unexpected.
"We train like that so that, God forbid something does occur, we'll be ready," said Parker.
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