The U.S. Army is in the midst of the most important and far-reaching modernization effort in nearly a century. The Army’s vision of a transformed force focuses primarily on 34 new systems. These range from long-range fires and advanced air and missile defenses to new ground and aerial platforms to advanced networks and enhanced soldier equipment. While it will take many years to fully develop and acquire all these capabilities, given the growing military threats from Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea, it is imperative that the Army field as many new or upgraded capabilities as it can, and that it does so as rapidly as possible. The Army is planning to begin fielding or conducting operational testing of 24 new systems in FY2023 alone.
The Army’s number one modernization priority is what it terms long-range precision fires (LRPF). This consists of a set of four programs to provide new artillery, rocket and missile systems with greater range, accuracy and responsiveness than currently deployed indirect fires capabilities. These programs are the Extended Range Cannon Artillery, the Precision Strike Missile, Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon, and the Mid-Range Capability. Taken together, these systems will provide the Army with enhanced fires at ranges between 70 and 2,000 kilometers. A fifth program, the Strategic Long-Range Cannon, was terminated in 2022.
The Army is also upgrading its existing fleet of armored self-propelled howitzers. The M109 Paladin, which equips armored brigade combat teams, was first deployed in the 1960s and has been upgraded several times. The current Paladin Integrated Program (PIM) focuses primarily on enhancements to the vehicle to achieve improved reliability, survivability, and maintainability. The PIM also involves a new fire control system which will enhance the cannon’s accuracy and lethality.
The recent conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan and the ongoing war in Ukraine clearly demonstrate the importance of indirect fire systems in future high-end conflicts. Both sides have relied heavily on artillery rockets and missiles to support battlefield operations and to target each other’s strategic assets and infrastructure. The expenditure of ammunition has reached levels not seen since World War Two. The U.S. and NATO countries have provided Ukraine with hundreds of towed, truck-mounted, and armored self-propelled artillery/rocket systems.
While the Ukraine conflict has been marked by the massed use of artillery as in wars of the past, it has also demonstrated what can be accomplished with a combination of long-range, improved accuracy, and enhanced targeting. Ukraine has employed its HIMARS systems with great effect against Russian munitions depots, command and control facilities, and vehicle parks. Russia has employed drones and electronic warfare to find, fix, and attack important Ukrainian targets.
The increased role of indirect fires systems has also led both sides to focus greater attention on counter-battery operations. The West has provided Ukraine with a number of counter-battery radars which are being used to great effect. Russian forces have employed drones and EW extensively to locate and attack Ukrainian artillery systems, particularly HIMARS and counter-battery radars. Both sides have demonstrated an ability to rapidly respond to incoming fires.
The conflict in Europe clearly demonstrates that formations which remain stationary for too long are dead. This is particularly true for indirect fire systems which provide a tell-tale signal for counter-battery fires. As one well-respected analyst of the international defense environment observed:
“Another issue highlighted by the Ukraine war is mobility. Historically, the problem for artillery was keeping pace on the battlefield with the infantry, cavalry, and tanks. But in Ukraine, mobility has become synonymous with survival. Drones and counter-battery radar, which can instantly pinpoint artillery as it fires, have made shoot-and-scoot tactics a necessity.”
The U.S. Army is investing serious resources in order to ensure that its planned long-range fire systems will have the necessary mobility to survive on the modern battlefield. The vulnerability of towed artillery systems, including those provided to Ukraine by the U.S., has been clearly demonstrated over the past year.
Given the reality of the modern battlefield, where mobility is synonymous with survivability, it is puzzling that the Army has no program to upgrade its towed M777 155mm artillery. Nearly 500 M777s are in U.S. Army inventory, equipping artillery brigades, Infantry Brigade Combat Teams (IBCTs) and Stryker Brigade Combat Teams (SBCTs). It is particularly ironic that the highly mobile SBCTs must continue to rely on towed 155mm artillery for their fire support.
Many U.S. allies and partners, including Israel, France, and the U.K., are making the move to truck-mounted 155mm artillery. Not only are such systems able to set up, fire, and redeploy in a matter of minutes, but they also require fewer personnel and supporting vehicles to function than towed systems.
The Army has recognized the need to do something about towed artillery. It has gone out to the global defense industry looking for mobile 155mm options. In 2021 it conducted a shoot-off between four systems: the Israeli Atmos, British Archer, French Caesar, and U.S. Brutus. The results of this test have not been made public. It should be noted that the Atmos, Archer, and Caesar are all deployed systems. In fact, France has sent a number of Caesars to Ukraine.
Unfortunately, despite the clear evidence provided by the Ukraine conflict that mobility is key to the survival of indirect fire systems, the Army is temporizing on acquiring a mobile replacement for its M777s. This makes no sense, particularly with respect to the SBCTs which rely on their mobility both for effectiveness and survivability.
The Army needs a truck-mounted 155mm capability, at least for the SBCTs, as soon as possible. Fortunately there are a number of proven options from which to choose. By using existing rapid prototyping and fielding authorities, the Army could field enough truck-mounted 155mm howitzers to equip at least the SBCT stationed in Europe. Even better, the Army could fill this gap in its long-range fires portfolio by acquiring a non-developmental platform to equip all seven SBCTs.
Author Expertise and Biography
Dr. Daniel Goure is Senior Vice President with the Lexington Institute, a nonprofit public-policy research organization headquartered in Arlington, Virginia. He is involved in a wide range of issues as part of the institute’s national security program. Dr. Goure has held senior positions in both the private sector and the U.S. Government. Most recently, he was a member of the 2001 Department of Defense Transition Team. Dr. Goure spent two years in the U.S. Government as the director of the Office of Strategic Competitiveness in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He also served as a senior analyst on national security and defense issues with the Center for Naval Analyses, Science Applications International Corporation, SRS Technologies, R&D Associates and System Planning Corporation. Goure is a 19FortyFive Contributing Editor.