Here's What You Need to Know: The future of ground warfare may be here sooner than you think.
Javelin anti-tank missiles can destroy armored vehicles from two-to-three miles away, TOW missiles can hit enemy tanks from about two miles and an Apache-fired Hellfire can attack and destroy enemy tanks from roughly four miles away. All of this is impressive, but what about anti-armor artillery able to track and destroy enemy armored vehicles from 30km? How about 70km?
This is the intent of the Army’s fast-evolving “hit-to-kill” shaped charge 155mm round engineered to bring new armor-penetrating explosive characteristics to precision artillery attack. Army artillery, armed with GPS and inertial measurement unit-guided Excalibur rounds, are not only fast-developing an ability to change each shell’s course in flight to destroy otherwise hidden or obscured targets, but can also increasingly draw upon various innovations to destroy moving targets as well.
“In order to have lethality against heavily armored targets, you need the “shaped charge” and a target seeking capability,” Brig. Gen. John Rafferty, Director, Long Range Precision Fires Cross Functional Team, Army Futures Command, told The National Interest in an interview.
The shaped-charge effort to destroy enemy tanks on the move, which Rafferty said will test fire later this year, is enabled by the “shaped trajectory” technology program which draws upon new course-correcting guidance systems to redirect course in flight and destroy targets on the back side of a mountain or under a bridge.
“With the shaped trajectory we have been pushing incrementally up to higher chamber pressures,” Rafferty explained. Building upon this course-correcting technology, the shaped charge involves new technical applications in the realm of what’s called “energetics,” a word to describe explosive effects.
“We took a standard 155 and took the unitary warhead out, which explodes as fragments. We replaced it with a shaped charge. Instead of a spray out of projectiles, it can defeat armored vehicles by putting a hot jet through metal,” Shawn Ball, Excalibur Business Development Lead, Raytheon, told me in an interview last year.
Also, to extend possibilities even further, the Army has recently demonstrated that its Extended Range Cannon Artillery (ERCA) program can destroy targets as far away as 70km. Using a longer-tube and newer kinds of firing technologies, Army and industry innovators have already doubled the range of existing precision-guided artillery with ERCA. Excalibur already draws upon new technologies to pinpoint targets to within one meter of accuracy, a measure of precision expected to be sustained at the longer ranges enabled by ERCA.
“Combined Arms allows us to close with and destroy an enemy. It requires armor, infantry and combat aviation to work together in a synchronized fashion. If we lose this synchronization we are far less lethal. If an enemy has range, he can separate the combined arms team. Our adversaries have watched us and learned how we fight. They have invested in areas to offset our advantage,” Rafferty told me in a previous interview.
Perhaps drones discover enemy tanks closing in for attack, fast approaching striking ranges. Traditional artillery, less capable of hitting moving targets and less capable of achieving a Javelin-like armor piercing effect, would most likely not be equipped to respond successfully. Until now.
Imagine what it might bring to land war combined arms if the Army could add a tank-killing, precision-guided, course-correcting artillery round able to strike at thirty or even 70km? This seemingly impossible prospect is now finally realistic.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.
This article first appeared in March 2021.
Image: US Army photo by Sgt. Sean Harriman, 2nd BCT, 1st AD, Public Affairs