The U.S. Army just fired two 155-millimeter-diameter howitzer shells out to a distance of 40 miles.
The test shots at Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona on March 6, 2020 signal the beginning of a major overhaul of the Army’s artillery.
The ground-combat branch is spending billions of dollars extending the firing range of its howitzers and rocket launchers while also developing new, long-range rockets -- all in an effort to match, then exceed, the artillery capabilities of rivals such as Russia.
The Army’s current howitzers -- the towed M-777 and the self-propelled M-109 -- fire just 14 miles with normal shells and 19 miles with rocket-assisted shells. Russian howitzers already can shoot as far as 43 miles.
The Army during the 2000s lagged behind its major rivals in artillery development.
That changed as China began exerting more influence in the Asia-Pacific region. The change accelerated when Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014. The Army deployed back to Europe two battalions of rocket launchers that it previously had withdrawn from the continent.
The howitzer that took the 40-mile shots in Arizona was one of the Army’s prototype Extended-Range Cannon Artillery systems. The ERCA combined the latest M-109A7 chassis with a new, 30-feet-long gun.
The Army expects to field the first 18 of the farther-firing guns in 2023.
The Yuma test involved two different shell types. An Excalibur GPS-guided shell and an M1113 rocket-assisted projectile. The M1113, which is slated to enter the regular force in the next couple of years, extends the firing range of older M-777s and M-109s to 24 miles.
A new ramjet-propelled shell that a Norwegian firm is developing further could boost the ERCA’s range out to 60 or even 80 miles.
The ERCA is the first in a series of new long-range weapons for the Army. The service also is developing new rockets for its wheeled High-Mobility Artillery Rocket System and tracked Multiple-Launch Rocket System.
The current, standard Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System rocket flies as far as 43 miles. A new extended-range version of the GMLRS, which the Army hopes to field starting in 2020, flies more than twice as far.
The current, large-diameter Army Tactical Missile System, which also is compatible with HIMARS and MLRS, has a maximum range of 186 miles. The new, lighter Precision Strike Missile -- due to enter service in 2023 -- boasts a 310-mile max range.
The Army also is studying a concept for a gigantic new, truck-towed cannon that could fire shells as far as 1,000 miles.
While larger in scale than any existing artillery piece, the Strategic Long-Range Cannon doesn’t actually require much in the way of new technology, Col. John Rafferty, who in 2018 led the Army’s long-range-fires modernization effort, told Breaking Defense.
Rafferty said the new gun would borrow elements of existing 155-millimeter cannons. “I don’t want to oversimplify, [but] it’s a bigger one of those,” Rafferty said. “We’re scaling up things that we’re already doing.”
The ground-combat branch also is working with the Navy to develop a common hypersonic glide vehicle, which would launch atop a rocket then travel 1,400 miles or farther at a top speed exceeding Mach five.
The ERCA is a tactical weapon that’s most suitable for directly supporting nearby forces. Farther-firing HIMARS and MLRS launchers give the Army some ability to hit enemy forces well behind the front line.
The conceptual thousand-mile cannon and the in-development hypersonic missile, by contrast, could allow the Army to strike targets such as staging bases, logistical networks and air bases -- targets that, before, were the sole responsibility of Air Force and Navy planes and missiles.
Targeting could pose a problem for these far-away targets. According to Breaking Defense, the Army is working on artificial intelligence and wireless networks so its howitzers and rocket-launchers can receive target coordinates from the service’s own drones as well as from drones, spy planes and satellites belonging to the other armed services.