Throughout nearly two decades of anti-terrorism and counter-insurgency warfare, the United States has continued to rely on long standing and reliable weapons platforms like the M777 Howitzer and the M1109AG Paladin Howitzer. These artillery platforms are capable of delivering a massive punch from a long distance — but as the U.S. Army is beginning to acknowledge, those distances may not be long enough if the nation were ever to find itself in a near-peer level conflict.
Despite the capabilities presented by America’s legacy weapons platforms, twenty years of near technological stagnation has had its effect. Although they’re fielding smaller and less capable militaries, both Russia and China have surpassed American military technology in a number of important fields, while America’s focus has been elsewhere. Hypersonic missile technology, hybrid warfare tactics, and even anti-satellite weapons are among a few of the warfighting realms America now finds itself playing catch up. However, it’s not just in the ground-breaking fields of defense technology that the U.S. finds itself struggling — it’s also in good old fashioned conventional war fighting realms: like artillery.
“I’m concerned that we’re currently behind China and Russia, both in terms of range and rate of fire. During the eight years of [President Barack] Obama, we fell behind. We delayed maintenance and deferred modernization — all while China and Russia were improving their conventional forces and artillery,” Sen. Jim Inhofe, the Republican Chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee said on October 3.
“We don’t have the best of everything right now, and I want to make sure we can get the best equipment for our war fighters so they don’t face a situation where they are out-ranged or outgunned.”
Efforts are already underway within the Army to match, and even exceed, the weapons platforms already fielded by nation-level competitors. In March of last year, NEWSREP covered the M777ER program, which was aimed specifically at matching Russia’s Howitzers in range. While most American Howitzer platforms have a maximum range of just 15 to 25 miles, the M777ER is said to keep pace with Russia’s Koalitsiya-SV, a self propelled Howitzer capable of striking targets as far away as 43 miles. Now, Army officials say they’re also working to develop an upgrade plan for the M109A6 Paladin 155mm howitzer as well as a “strategic long-range cannon” with a projected range of 1,000 nautical miles.
“We’re helping, too — Congress delivered adequate, on-time funding for fiscal year 2019, the first time in 10 years, so the Pentagon has the ability to invest in modernization,” Inhofe said. “I’m encouraged by the steps I’ve seen so far, but look forward to frequent, regular updates from the Army on this and all aspects of modernization.”
Ultimately, the Army intends to field rockets and artillery with ranges that exceed 10,000 nautical miles, but they’re aware that acquiring targets reliably from that distance will be one of the hurdles they need to overcome, but not the only one. Other concerns include making such a weapons system affordable — not just to build, but to supply ammunition for.
“You need traditional artillery area fire, but just at much greater ranges,” Col. John Rafferty, the director of the Army’s Long-Range Precision Fires Cross-Functional Team, said. “And then there would be enough room in the warhead to be able to put in sensor fuse munitions and sensors that would enable you to track moving targets in multiple domains.”
Ultimately, despite the technological advancements presented in cyber, space, and hypersonic fields, Rafferty still believes the wars of the future will still be won or lost beneath a hail of artillery fire.
“How do we penetrate the enemy’s A2AD [anti-access, area denial] networks? … That is a pacing threat,” he said. “This Army strategic fires, the purpose of that, is to create windows of opportunity for exploitation by the joint force.”