The air component commander of U.S. Central Command wants to increase the use of smaller, less expensive drones and to work with U.S. allies in the region to assemble a 360 degree radar picture of aerial and ballistic threats from Iran and other countries.

“We are looking at how do we fill some of our gaps in our awareness in the air domain by stitching together new sensors, new technologies that might make us much more aware of what’s out there,” Air Force Lt. Gen. Alexus “Grynch” Grynkewich, the commander of 9th Air Force/Air Forces Central (AFCENT), told reporters on Aug. 28.  “So we’re looking at the potential for enhanced use of drones, not the kind of drones that we usually have, but smaller, less expensive, that we can network in some way.  We’re looking at the unique placement of sensors that we can put up at high altitude in order to build broad situational awareness.”

Grynkewich has headed AFCENT since July and previously served as CENTCOM’s director of operations from June 2020 until June this year.

On Aug. 28, Grynkewich said that the maritime awareness effort by the new Task Force 59 under the 5th Fleet in Bahrain helped inspired his desire for a similar drive by AFCENT, which also has provided armed overwatch over water, including choke points, such as the Straits of Hormuz.

“When we conceive of the threat that we face today, really ballistic missiles and unmanned aerial systems are a large part of what has been used by militant groups in the region, and even by Iran on occasion against different forces here in the region as well, as evidenced by the attacks back in 2019 against Saudi Arabia or you can name any number of attacks from the Houthis or from militant groups in Iraq,” Grynkewich said.

On Aug. 15, Iran-backed militants attacked U.S. forces with drones at al-Tanf and with rockets at another base in Syria, the Pentagon said.

“The issue with the ballistic missile threat is that it doesn’t just emanate from Iran proper, but there are ballistic missiles that have been sighted with militant groups in Iraq,” Grynkewich said on Aug. 28. “There’s ballistic missiles in Syria. The Houthis down in Yemen have ballistic missiles.  So a threat to one of our partner nations or to U.S. forces and coalition forces in the region can really come from any direction.”

“The same is true when you think about the unmanned aerial vehicle threat,” he said.  “Even if a UAS…is coming at you from the east, let’s say, it could fly some sort of a buttonhook profile where the terminal attack heading is actually from the west, the opposite of where it emanated from.  So what this means is that those of us tasked with air defense, whether it’s myself at AFCENT or the various commanders in the region, the nations in the region, is that you have to be able to protect things…in 360 degrees.  None of us have the resources to fully fill up that picture, 360 degrees around our country, but if we work together we can stitch together the sensors that all of us have, and there’s considerable capability, and build a much broader awareness that will cover most of that 360 degrees of access for most of the country.”

Last December, as CENTCOM’s director of operations, Grynkewich said that CENTCOM wanted to bolster its intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities beyond those afforded by current space assets and the General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper (Defense Daily, Dec. 7, 2021).

“The fact of the matter for U.S. CENTCOM is there’s really nothing else that has the collection capabilities and the unique combination of collection capabilities that the MQ-9 has right now,” he said at the time. “I don’t want to ask for MQ-9s. I want to ask for something that can provide full-motion video, SIGINT [signals intelligence], and whatever else it is you’re looking for. But when you start adding those all up, there really is nothing else. I think we’ll find other environments in the future where we need a persistent collection capability, and whether that comes from a space-based collection capability, some sort of a near space collection capability or other kind of long-range, loitering airborne layer capability, those are going to be critically important.”