Modern Problems, Modern Solutions
Undisclosed Location, US Central Command Area of Operations...
Just a little under ten years ago, deployed Marines on patrol would have their eyes scanning for the greatest threat at the time – Improvised Explosive Devices. In Afghanistan alone, just over 350 coalition members died at the hands of IEDs.
Today, those forward deployed to the Central Command area of Operations have their eyes directed upwards, looking to the skies for the newest threat – Unmanned Aerial Systems, more commonly known as Drones.
Various threat networks throughout the region have utilized drones to conduct surveillance on coalition forces. Even more recently, these networks are arming their drones with explosives in order to generate casualties and damage to both military and civilian infrastructure. The ease at which any individual can acquire or purchase a commercial drone off the shelf has lent itself to the heightened threat.
To face this evolving threat, the Marine Corps has reached into its tool kit and employed one of its lesser-known resources – Low Altitude Air Defense (LAAD).
Formally, LAAD is known by its mission of engaging fixed and rotary wing type aircraft with a stinger missile in defense of Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) assets in forward areas that are vital to the MAGTF commander. In recent times, their targets have shifted from larger aircraft with missiles to now smaller UAS assets.
Gunnery Sergeant Brandon Meadors offered some insight on how his mission has changed from his first deployment to Iraq compared with his current deployment.
“My first deployment was in 2005. We were a provisional rifle company, so we were conducting convoy security and route clearance for convoys going from Ramadi all the way to the Jordanian border.
Now, the way I see it, we have evolved to do what we were originally intended to do which is to provide that Low Altitude Air Defense in forward areas. Is it an actual enemy aircraft that we are going against? No, but it is an enemy has those class one and two drones”.
Currently, LAAD detachments are deployed all around the region with a variety of Counter-UAS (C-UAS) assets designed to detect, identify, defeat, and if need be, destroy a threat UAS.
As forward LAAD units conduct C-UAS missions, adaptive training and on the job training will be conducted to ensure Marines going forward will deploy with the skillsets required to operate the systems utilized to engage enemy UAS. Gunnery Sergeant Daniel Deese, a prior LAAD Gunner instructor, shared some thoughts about the evolving mission.
“A lot of the same principles that LAAD gunners receive at the schoolhouse will be applied to their new mission. Everyone sees a LAAD gunner with a stinger missile on their shoulder pointed up at the sky,” Deese said, “those principles still apply to the C-UAS mission, we optically search for aircraft or UAS using multiple camera systems.”
“Our community is so small,” Meadors went on to say, “you can consider it a family. We are deployed all over the world at any given moment. We are constantly checking in on each other making sure everyone is doing the right thing. We’re holding those corporals, team leaders, and Assistant Gunners to a higher level.”
The LAAD communities have gone from a battalion that may have perhaps been one of the most overlooked capabilities in the past, to one of the most in-demand assets in the forward area of operations. They are deployed in concert with artillery and the infantry.
“We have infantry guys coming to us asking about our weapons systems” Meadors said. “That curiosity is what drives us to do a little bit more. We still feel relevant in that aspect.”