Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, a ring of surface-to-air missiles has encircled Washington, D.C., prepared to shoot down any aerial threat to the nation’s capital – be it piper cub, commercial airliner or enemy fighter.
Today, more than 200 soldiers from the South Carolina National Guard are manning those missiles, perched atop buildings at several locations around the city, in a yearlong deployment that began in April.
It is the fourth time that the unit – the 263rd Army Air and Missile Defense Command and its subordinate 2-263rd Air Defense Artillery Battalion – has held that important job in the past 10 years.
“Most people in Washington, D.C., don’t realize that they are surrounded by missiles and the number of rooftops these things are on,” said Maj. Gen. Glenn Bramhall, a Spartanburg native who commands the 263rd. “It doesn’t get the media attention. It’s low key. There are no special badges or medals. But the overall Army and the military know who we are and trust us to protect the capital.”
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The unit is one of only four theater-size air defense commands in the U.S. Army, and the only one in a state national guard. The mission is one of myriad specialized units and unique assignments handled by the military in South Carolina – active duty, Reserve or Guard – which are generally unknown to the general public.
It also exemplifies the many missions handled by the S.C. Guard, one of the nation’s most active.
“It shows the diversity of the people we have and our ability to handle the missions that come our way,” said Maj. Gen. Robert Livingston, the state adjutant general and the Guard’s commander.
The 263rd has two functions: The command and control element that coordinates with the FBI, Secret Service, Army, Air Force and NORAD, called Joint Air Defense Operations Center; and the men and woman of the 2-263rd Battalion who man the batteries.
It’s rare that both the command and control and battery operations are filled by soldiers from one state.
“It talks about the nation’s confidence in our ability to do that job,” Livingston said. “It’s inter-agency. It’s FBI, Secret Service, all of that.”
The position of the batteries and many other aspects of the mission are classified – so much so that photographs of the active batteries and the soldiers that man them are forbidden.
Each of the batteries is armed with eight Stinger missiles, Bramhall said. The number of batteries in the capital is restricted information.
The Avenger system is manufactured by Boeing. It is fully automated and designed to identify, track and engage low-flying targets such as helicopters or fixed-wing aircraft, according to Boeing’s website.
The systems usually are mounted on a HUMVEE or truck and act as the Army’s “shoot-on-the-move air defense weapon,” the website said. They also can be operated from fixed locations.
The 263rd began their deployment in April and should begin withdrawing in February. The unit is based in Anderson and most of the soldiers are from the Upstate.
Most of the soldiers are 19 or 20 years old, Bramhall said, but are prepared to bring down any aircraft if ordered.
“That shows the confidence we have in the training of these soldiers,” Bramhall said. “The nation is giving them a lot of responsibility.”