Snow, bears and a US Army first in the mountains of Slovakia
Stars and Stripes December 28, 2023
LEST TRAINING AREA, Slovakia — The soldiers of Able Battery’s 1st Platoon are more than halfway through a groundbreaking deployment in the Slovak mountains, where they’ve had to live with technological challenges, prolonged freezing temperatures and a family of brown bears.
The unit and its two sister platoons, deployed to Poland and Romania, are using the Army’s new Maneuver Short-Range Air Defense system, or M-SHORAD, for the first time in active defense missions.
The system is at the heart of efforts to revamp the service’s short-range air defense capabilities amid growing concerns over competitors like Russia and China, and tactical trends seen in Ukraine and the Middle East.
“With the current threats — drones and things enemies are using now — this system is very important,” Staff Sgt. Elijah Bentz said at the central Slovakia base where the platoon lives and works. “We’re here writing the doctrine for it.”
The platoon’s home in an austere corner of the base could be mistaken for a camp in the Arctic.
Their shared bedrooms are in a building that looks like a double-decker trailer, with corrugated metal on the exterior walls. A common area with two TVs, a dining area and a gym located in tents is nearby.
A sign in a communal kitchen reminds troops to keep an eye out for wildlife. A brown bear and two cubs have been seen and heard.
“You have to be careful out here,” said Spc. Nathan Ebert, who operates the Sentinel radar used with the air defense system and who saw the bears while driving back from the Sentinel site a few months ago.
The platoons in Slovakia, Poland and Romania are part of 5th Battalion, 4th Air Defense Artillery Regiment, a subordinate to both the 52nd Air Defense Artillery Brigade and the 10th Army Air and Missile Defense Command, based in Germany.
They protect bases and infrastructure from potential short-range air threats like cruise missiles, drones and other low-flying aircraft.
In Slovakia, the air defenders are guarding a multinational battlegroup. Most of the soldiers pull 24-hour shifts inside their Stryker vehicles about once every four days, during which they monitor radar for incoming threats. There haven’t been any so far.
On days when they’re not manning the radar, they’re leading efforts to determine how the M-SHORADs can best maneuver with other ground units, a critical aim of the program, platoon leader 2nd Lt. Chris Rosene said.
“We’re the first ones to work out how to integrate with maneuver forces as we switch back from counterinsurgency to large-scale combat operations,” Rosene said. “It’s a learning experience for everyone out here.”
That includes soldiers with the 101st Airborne Division who are also at the base supporting NATO. The platoon has been holding small exercises with the division’s troops.
The idea is that if troops need to move around the battlefield, M-SHORAD crews should be able to move with them and provide cover.
That support is currently lacking.
In the 1990s, every Army division had a short-range air defense battalion to protect it. But by 2017, after years of focusing on counterinsurgency, none of the service’s active divisions had one, according to the Army.
Efforts are now underway to reestablish 10 SHORAD battalions for each division, the Army said.
At first, they’ll operate with older Avenger systems, which consist of Stinger missiles and a .50-caliber machine gun mounted on a Humvee, before eventually receiving the M-SHORADs.
The new systems include Strykers, stinger missiles, a 30 mm cannon, an M240 machine gun and the radar system.
Each deployed platoon has a different mission set. The platoon in Poland, which neighbors Ukraine, is “at the highest state of readiness and alert due to their proximity to hostile forces” and has been focusing on operations with live missiles, said Capt. Michael N. Archer, Able Battery’s commander.
In Romania, the air defenders have specialized in joint data sharing and overlapping coverage with additional systems that counter aerial drones, Archer said.
And in Slovakia, partly because the soldiers are farther from the war in Ukraine and also because of the space available at their base, 1st Platoon is focused on improving maneuverability with partner units.
In a snow-covered field a few minutes’ drive from where the soldiers live, two M-SHORADs conducted a simulated bounding engagement in late December, with crews taking turns driving forward as if they were providing cover for ground forces.
It was preparation for the largest training yet with 101st Airborne soldiers, slated to be held sometime in January.
“We’re doing pretty well,” Sgt. Theodore Buckley, one of the vehicle commanders, said after disembarking from the machine, explaining that constant communication with his crew and others is necessary.
Gunner Spc. Jason Castro, whose first deployment to NATO’s eastern flank was in Lithuania with the Avenger system, said it’s much easier to move with the eight-wheel-drive, M-SHORAD-equipped Stryker. Others echoed that sentiment.
The soldiers also spoke of issues with the system’s software and difficulties adapting to the new technology.
Some of the challenges stemmed from the system’s rapid development, with components sourced from various vendors, according to Archer, who said the issues were being worked out with higher headquarters.
“There are many more years of training, refinement and improvements required to be able to fully optimize operations to the greatest effect, and our battery has had the privilege to lead the way,” Archer said later by email. It’s a similar process whenever any major new system is incorporated into the Army, he added.
Despite the hiccups, the consensus among troops working with the platoon was that the system was operating well.
“Their upgraded capabilities really add to our deterrence out here in Slovakia,” said Capt. Brandon Thaxton, assistant operations officer for the 1st Squadron, 33rd Cavalry Regiment, 3rd Brigade, 101st Airborne.
The high-altitude weather can be relentless, affecting operations and causing blackouts, the soldiers said.
Despite the challenges, morale among the 1st Platoon remains high. Many appeared excited about their work, months into the deployment.
“It feels historic,” Ebert said with a smile. “It’s a test for the whole world to see if our system works or not. So far, it’s been working.”