The US Army's New Battlefield 'Big Gun' Has a Dangerous Defect
The U.S. Army in the coming years will build hundreds of new mobile howitzers, and largely, the project has been a success. Except there will be a problem if the self-propelled howitzers catch on fire.
The Paladin M109A7 PIM — the latest in America’s line of tracked artillery pieces — has an automated fire-suppression system known as an AFES. But during survivability tests, the AFES “did not protect the entire crew compartment” and that “howitzer crews are at increased fire risk” according to a report by the Pentagon’s Inspector General released in August.
Oil, lubricants and the heating system inside the Paladins are all potential fire hazards. And for obvious reasons, there is a risk of fire if the vehicles take a big enough blow. And that’s big trouble for the crews.
The Army will deploy its first PIMs in March 2017, and the howitzers feature a host of upgrades designed for the modern battlefield. But if the problem with the AFES isn’t fixed, “PIM program officials could deploy vehicles that endanger crews.”
All of that is true. Here’s another fact — the PIM is still safer than its predecessor Paladins, which have no automated fire suppression systems at all. Crews have to trust their lives to manual fire extinguishers carried on board.
However, it’s still big deal, especially considering the kind of lethal, massed and accurate artillery fire honed by the Russian army in eastern Ukraine — and which could land on American guns in a potential conflict.
The PIM is an evolutionary — not radical — upgrade of the Paladin. Outwardly, they look similar and have the same turret, except the PIM has a modified chassis based on the M-2 Bradley Fighting Vehicle.
The most important upgrade is the all-electric drive system in the turret and an overhaul of the engine to give the machine a lot more horsepower.
In short, this makes the new Paladin faster, more maneuverable and much easier to work on. Speed was a big problem in the 1992 and 2003 Iraq wars, when Paladins lagged behind the Army’s faster armored vehicles. And the PIM is better protected from mines, as the chassis rests higher off the ground.
All that extra electrical juice in the Paladin is particularly useful for future upgrades regarding the fire-control systems and communications gear — a vital element of a modern artillery exchange.
It’s a long time coming for the U.S. Army’s artillery corps, which has struggled with questions of relevance in wars on insurgents. To be sure, howitzers have played an important — but reduced — role in America’s recent conflicts.
During the 2003 invasion of Iraq, America went to war with its smallest ratio of artillery to “maneuver” forces — those troops who close and engage the enemy — since the Spanish-American War, according to Armed Forces Journal.
In Afghanistan, artillery battalions often deployed with fewer guns than they were originally intended to field — and troops often found themselves doing other jobs.
Veterans of the Army’s artillery corps fretted over these trends. “So much for the vaunted King of Battle,” retired artillery officer Maj. Lance Boothe wrote in the May-June 2013 edition of Military Review.
In 2002’s Operation Anaconda, the U.S. clashed with hundreds of Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters without any large-caliber artillery. Yet with a more entrenched U.S. troop presence in the following years came an increasing reliance on big guns which — in places — fired relentlessly.
Case in point, one artillery battalion in Afghanistan’s mountainous and remote Kunar province lobbed around 25,000 rounds — including mortar rounds — in a year, according to the New York Times.
To fight the Islamic State, the Pentagon relies heavily on fixed-wing aircraft. But American artillery is still present on the ground.
The 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit has fired more than 2,000 artillery rounds at the Islamic State since deploying to Iraq. And the terrorists have shot back. One Marine from the unit was killed in a rocket strike on his artillery outpost near Makhmour on March 19.
Most disconcerting of all, America’s adversaries are not standing still. The Pentagon has closely watched massive amounts of Russian artillery deployed with brutal efficiency in support of the Kremlin’s proxies in Ukraine.
During one of Kiev’s worst defeats in August-September 2014, Russian heavy guns slaughtered hundreds of outgunned and surrounded Ukrainian volunteers at Ilovaisk. Russian-backed rebels have also made frequent use of small aerial drones for artillery reconnaissance.
In response, U.S. Marine expeditionary units now train with similar drones flying overhead to simulate enemy spotters.
In short, the U.S. military must prepare for a battlefield which involves lots of artillery. The Russians have also improved their skills in several conflicts in Chechnya and Georgia, and in Ukraine deployed advanced counter-battery radars which can detect the origin of incoming rounds, allowing them to quickly hit back at the source.