Long Range Precision Fires (LRPF) are the U.S. Army’s number one modernization priority. The immediate goal of this program is to restore the Army’s erstwhile advantage in indirect fires, both artillery and rockets/missiles. Even more importantly, the program has a long-term goal of having LRPF play a central role in a new American way of war, based on achieving an information advantage in order to conduct coordinated fires, of all types, across multiple domains. Reinforcing this ability will pose multiple dilemmas to adversaries.
In addition to long-range, more accurate weapons, the U.S. military needs a revolution in long-range surveillance and targeting. This requires not just deploying more and better sensors but developing advanced data management and analytic capabilities with a heavy reliance on artificial intelligence. The combination of highly lethal fires at all ranges and near-real time precision targeting will change the way the joint force fights in the future.
At one time, the U.S. military boasted the best, most lethal, most sophisticated artillery and rocket systems in the world. But over several decades, it has allowed this advantage to erode. The ability to gain and retain air superiority led to increased reliance on fires from aerial platforms, both fixed and rotary wing. This tendency was reinforced by the results of the Persian Gulf War and subsequent conflicts in Southwest Asia.
Under the umbrella of what is described as an anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) strategy, U.S. competitors and adversaries are investing in integrated air defenses, electronic warfare, space weapons and cyber with the aim of denying America’s its advantage in airpower. In addition, competitors have been acquiring an array of long-range strike systems, particularly ballistic and cruise missiles, but increasingly armed drones as well.
The United States needs to be able to counter prospective adversaries’ investments in A2/AD capabilities, as well as exploit opportunities presented by advances in weapons, sensors and computing technologies, to create a new American way of war. The program with the greatest potential to both restore the U.S. Army’s advantage in long-range fires capabilities and revolutionize how the joint force fights is the Army’s LRPF modernization initiative.
The overarching objective mission of the LRPF effort is to create overmatch at the tactical, operational, and perhaps strategic levels of military operations. The bigger idea is to employ operational and strategic fires to attack critical land and naval targets across an entire theater. According to Brigadier General John Rafferty, director of the LRPF Cross Functional Team (CFT), Army indirect fires must be able to penetrate and destroy an enemy’s A2/AD systems throughout the depth of the theater, thereby creating windows of opportunity for exploitation by the joint force. Once critical A2/AD capabilities have been degraded, U.S. airpower and maneuver forces can be brought to bear against the rest of the enemy’s conventional forces.
The programs being pursued by the LRPF CFT have the promise to give the U.S. Army an indirect fires advantage at all ranges. The primary program to improve tactical fires is the Extended Range Cannon Artillery (ERCA), which will double the range of Army artillery to 70km. With advanced munitions, such as the precision Excalibur and the XM1113/1155 rocket-assisted projectiles, the ERCA will be able to outshoot adversaries’ indirect fires systems, as well as attack their forward-deployed air and missile defenses.
The Precision Strike Missile (PrSM) will provide the Army with a new operational capability at ranges up to 500km and perhaps beyond. The initial version of PrSM will focus on degrading an adversary’s most lethal long-range air and missile defenses, ballistic missiles, and theater-level command and control center. The next variant, or spiral, of PrSM to be deployed will have the capability to attack naval targets, a capability that is also of interest to the Marine Corps. The LRPF CFT is considering the need for a new medium-range missile to address targets in the space between PrSM and where future strategic weapons can be employed.
The two fire systems with the potential to most significantly change the role of Army indirect fires capabilities are the Strategic Long-Range Cannon and the Long-Range Hypersonic Missile. As envisioned, these will be strategic weapons with the ability to strike targets at ranges up to several thousand miles, a capability the Army has not had since the era of Pershing II and the Ground-Launched Cruise Missile.
What more than two years of work have taught CFT is that it is as necessary to invest in in more capable and faster targeting systems it is to increase the range of fires systems or the precision of their rounds/warheads. It is mostly about the data. The Army has to be able to find and track high-value target and pass the information to the appropriate shooter. This means a serious investment in multi-source reconnaissance systems and in software to take this sensor information, fuse it with data bases, and provide target quality info to the right shooter.
The Army is creating what one industry observer has described as an “all domain kill chain.“ One element of this is building a network of sensors that can cover the entire theater. This network will include satellites, manned aircraft such as the F-35 and high-flying TR-1, drones and various land and sea-based sensors.
But a sensor grid is not enough. The grid’s data must be collected, fused and sent to the most appropriate shooter in near-real time. To meet this demand, the Army is investing in advanced fires command and control capabilities. It is developing a single ground terminal known as Titan that can receive all source data from an array of sensors, many operated by the other Services. This data will be sorted and fused by a new software program, called Prometheus. The information developed by Prometheus will be exploited by another software program, SHOT, that creates a fires plan matching targets to the best shooter. Finally, this fires plan will be sent to the Army’s Field Artillery Tactical Data System, which is being upgraded, for implementation.
LRPF CFT efforts are at the leading edge of the next revolution in U.S. military capabilities, in which all-source, multi-domain information will allow the full array of fires systems and airpower to be brought to bear against an adversary’s military and strategic targets, rapidly and decisively. The Army has demonstrated a number of these emerging fires C2 capabilities in its recent Project Convergence experiments.
Dan Gouré, Ph.D., is a vice president at the public-policy research think tank Lexington Institute. Gouré has a background in the public sector and U.S. federal government, most recently serving as a member of the 2001 Department of Defense Transition Team. You can follow him on Twitter at @dgoure and the Lexington Institute @LexNextDC. Read his full bio here.