Air defenders deployment extended as service grows the job field

by Tommy Grant

An air defense battalion saw its Poland deployment extended by three months last week as the unit supports NATO defense in eastern Europe.

The 1st Battalion, 62nd Air Defense Artillery Regiment, out of Fort Cavazos, Texas kicked off their current deployment in October and was set to return home by March. The unit will now stay on site until June.

Air defenders are one of the most deployed units with the lowest deploy-to-dwell ratios in the Army, senior leaders have said in recent years.

In December, Maj. Gen. Sean Gainey, director of the Joint Counter-Unmanned Aircraft Systems Office testified to Congress that nearly all soldiers in air defense units had exceeded the Pentagon’s requirement of remaining home a minimum of two years following a one-year deployment.

“We’ve asked a lot of our air and missile defense formations, and in every instance, they have responded to every call,” Gainey said. “The cost has been decreased time [at] home. It’s having a strain on the force. Army leadership recognizes that strain. And the Joint Staff and [Army] leadership has looked at reducing demand.”

But protecting U.S. troops in the Middle East following the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks on Israel and subsequent war and watching allies’ skies, such as in Poland amid the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine have meant little relief for air defenders.

On Feb. 27, the Army released a summary of its plan to restructure the force to modern threats, which includes adding air and missile defense jobs as it cuts thousands of Global War on Terror-era positions that remain unfilled.

As of the end of fiscal year 2023, the Army had 7,579 active-duty soldiers with air and missile defense-specific job titles, 840 in the Guard and 235 in the Reserve, for a total of 8,654 air defenders in the force.

The push will mean four more Maneuver Short Range Air Defense Battalions, nine counter-drone batteries and four additional indirect fire protection battalions.

But those changes are part of a long-term restructuring and won’t provide relief to air defenders any time soon.

“Being away from family is hard, but I have really grown to my platoon being my family,” Staff Sgt. Zachary Nanninga, a platoon sergeant, said in a statement to Stars and Stripes on Wednesday.

As 1st BN saw its deployment extended, members of Alpha Battery, 5th Battalion, 4th Air Defense Artillery Regiment prepared for their return from Europe’s eastern flank in Poland, Slovakia and Romania back to Ansbach, Germany this week.

The 5th BN was the first in the Army to field and test four prototype short range air defense systems which protect against fixed-wing, rotary wing and drone threats, according to an Army release.

Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.

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