Ukraine’s American-Made Avenger Air-Defense Vehicles Are Too Vulnerable For The Front Line

Apr 14, 2023

A U.S. Army National Guard Avenger fires a Stinger missile in 2015.

The first of a dozen American-made Avenger air-defense vehicles have arrived in Ukraine. A video that circulated online last week depicts one of the lightweight, eight-round launchers in the mud that’s typical of Ukraine’s spring melt.

“Avengers are now in the capable hands of the [Ukrainian army],” the Ukrainian defense ministry stated. The first Avengers have equipped Ukraine’s northern command, which maintains defenses in and around Kyiv, Chernihiv and other major cities.

It’s also possible the general staff in Kyiv eventually will assign Avengers to accompany front-line brigades. It’s what the U.S. Army designed the four-ton, two-person Avenger to do, after all.

But as a front-line air-defense system, the Avenger has some major drawbacks. If the Ukrainian army does push its Avengers toward the fighting, it should do so carefully.

The Avenger is an unarmored Humvee truck with a swiveling, open-top turret bolted onto its cargo bed. The turret packs twin four-round launchers for Stinger infrared-guided surface-to-air missiles as well as a .50-caliber machine gun.

The 22-pound Stinger is a short-range weapon. It can strike targets three miles away with a seven-pound warhead. “Avenger forces protect maneuver elements during lodgment, early-entry operations, shaping activities against fixed and rotary-wing aircraft attacks, cruise-missile attacks and observation by surveillance platforms,” the U.S. Army explained in a 2016 field manual.

It’s a last-ditch weapon, basically. The kind you’d use against a helicopter, attack jet, drone or subsonic missile that’s already shooting at you or about to blow up in your face.

But it’s mobile—and that’s its best attribute. As brigades advance, Avengers can advance with them. If a brigade advances far enough, it might even leave the protective umbrella of fixed, long-range SAMs such as Ukraine S-300s.

At that point, an Avenger or another short-range air-defense vehicle such as a Strela-10 or Gepard might be the brigade’s only effective defense against air attack.

There’s a catch. “Avenger systems should not be integrated into the maneuver force when contact is expected because it is a lightweight vehicle and is extremely vulnerable to direct fire, small arms and indirect fire,” the U.S. Army warned in its field manual. Even a determined rifleman could knock out an Avenger if he got close enough.

It didn’t have to be this way. The U.S. Army decades ago grew overly comfortable with the U.S. Air Force’s assurance that it would control the sky over any conceivable battlefield. The Army ceased developing new armored air-defense vehicles and consigned most of its hundreds of unarmored Avengers to National Guard units.

But Russia’s wider war on Ukraine has underscored how tenuous air-superiority can be, even for the bigger air force in a lopsided fight.

“The current air-defense organization is a relic of the past two decades of static, theater-level, defensive deployments and needs to be seriously reevaluated in the face of new threats,” U.S. Army captain Peter Mitchell wrote for West Point’s Modern War Institute.

The U.S. Army has rushed development of a new armored air-defense vehicle based on the hull of a 20-ton Stryker fighting vehicle.

Ukraine isn’t getting air-defense Strykers, however. Ukrainian brigades that plan to fight on the move during an offensive deep behind Russian lines and don’t have Strela-10s or Gepards might have to make do with Avengers.

That means deploying the unprotected vehicles where they can contribute to a brigade’s defense, but without placing them directly in harm’s way. The U.S. Army advised commanders to assign their Avengers to escort supply convoys, command vehicles and howitzers instead of mixing them in with the tanks and fighting vehicles.

That should keep them a short distance from the heaviest fighting. But, in an emergency, Avenger crews might have to move forward—and accept the risk. “Avenger units must retain flexibility to shift and redirect fires to provide the best coverage,” the U.S. Army advised.

If this all seems like a giant headache—well, that might explain why the Ukrainians so far have consigned their Avengers to a sector of the country where there’s no major ground combat.

They might never deploy the Avengers to do what they were designed to do: escort front-line brigades.

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David Axe


  1. “But Russia’s wider war on Ukraine has underscored how tenuous air-superiority can be, even for the bigger air force in a lopsided fight.”

    You simply cannot compare the US Air Force with the mafia one. There is a world of difference between the two. Not only do we have the better equipment, but we have far better trained pilots, a much better strategy and tactics, and far better leadership. This is what this war has shown, regarding air power.

    “They might never deploy the Avengers to do what they were designed to do: escort front-line brigades.”

    If such units are needed along the front lines, then the Ukrainians will think of a way to do it, if other systems aren’t available. They might even put the launchers on an armored carrier.

    For the US Army, I think this sort of air defense is of secondary importance. Our air force is an extremely capable one, not like the incompetent and ineffective mafia one or any others on this globe. In any battlefield, it, along with US Navy planes, will gain air superiority in short order. It’s been like this in every war since WWII, and it won’t change in our lifetimes. As long as we don’t have a POTUS who’s afraid of his own shadow, that is.

  2. These vehicles clearly do sacrifice vulnerability for mobility, but if Ukrainian mud does slow down the army as much as expected – it all but stopped russia’s advance last year – then the AFU would need to take the same into account for moving their forces as they take back territory. Too much armor on a truck will slow it down in off-road conditions, ESPECIALLY if it’s engine wasn’t originally designed to compensate for the extra weight. Plus, if these vehicles were fitted with half-tracks (which allow heavier armor while still retaining mobility), another sacrifice if tracks broke down, it would halt the truck’s movement, requiring a mechanic to repair it. Tires are MUCH easier, and on roads, moderately faster. Ukraine’s military commanders have already proven themselves quite competent in planning and executing strategy, so surely they will think about how environmental conditions in the field will affect the vehicles.

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