During the first half of the twentieth century, armies grew enamored with the concept of “super guns”—huge artillery systems able to bombard cities up dozens of miles behind the frontline. During World War I, Imperial Germany deployed the infamous Paris Gun, which could launch huge 211-millimeter shells to bombard the French capital from up to eighty miles away, terrorizing its populous. “God fights on the side with the best artillery,” said Napoleon Bonaparte. This aphorism appears as true today as it did almost three centuries ago.
During the Cold War, heavy artillery units were prepared to deliver tactical nuclear warheads, so the United States fielded long-range M107 and M110 self-propelled guns. However, the army retired its last M110s in the early 2000s. The artillery branch’s mainstay M109A5 Paladin howitzers 155-millimeter shells currently can strike targets up to 19 miles using rocket-assisted projectiles.
Many countries still maintain very long-range artillery, though not super guns. North Korea maintains 170-millimeter Koksan guns specifically intended to serve as a strategic threat to the South Korean capital of Seoul. Russian Army, which knows it can’t assume air superiority in a conflict with NATO, has invested far more in artillery systems such as Koalitsya and the BM-31 Uragan rocket launcher which outrange U.S. counterparts. In its incursion into eastern Ukraine, the Russian Army demonstrated a sophisticated capability to find, fix and destroy targets with long-range fires. China, too, is expanding its inventory of long-range rockets and missiles.
Bofors gun proved its power in Kargil War. Major highlights of all the operations in “Operation Vijay” was comprehensive destruction of enemy defences and suppression of enemy artillery forcing them to vacate their defences, leaving behind a large cache of arms, ammunition, equipment and stores. The suppression of enemy small arms and artillery fire reduced own casualties considerably. The role of artillery in the battlefield, as destructive and decisive arm was indeed written in golden letters in “Operation Vijay”
The Indian Army is reportedly set to induct the first batch of its domestically developed and manufactured Dhanush artillery howitzer. State-owned Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) is building the Indian Army’s long-range artillery gun. The company is expected to deliver five howitzers to the army’s Central Ordnance Depot in Jabalpur. A total of 114 Dhanush artillery guns are currently on order. A regiment of 18 guns is expected to be inducted by the end of this year, reported The Economic Times. The 155mm × 45mm calibre artillery gun is based on Bofors howitzer that was commissioned with the service in the 1980s. The gun has been put through several rigorous evaluation phases to test its performance in different climatic conditions.
Long-range and super-long-range artillery systems faded from arsenals of Western militaries because they have found a simpler and more precise solution for “servicing” targets deep behind enemy lines: air or drone strikes, as well as GPS-guided rocket artillery. However, as the U.S. Army has begun reorienting away from counter-insurgency roles to great-power conflicts, it has appreciated new long-range air defense missiles like the S-400 present a major threat to air superiority. Artillery and tactical rocket or missile systems can fill the gap in air-support-denied environment.
Today, a qualitative and quantitative capability gap exists with respect to long-range fires. The most important goals of the precision fires modernization effort are to increase the reach/range at which artillery and rocket systems can engage targets, and to develop new shells and missiles to attack high-value, well-defended targets. In the near-term, this means enhancing the lethality of existing 155mm howitzers and rocket artillery. The Army is adding to its inventory of precision rounds, such as Excalibur, and providing jam-resistant, precision-guidance kits for 155mm artillery projectiles.
Long-range precision fires is the Army’s No. 1 modernization priority. According to Col. John Rafferty, director of the Long-Range Precision Fires Cross-Functional Team, Army indirect fires must be able to penetrate and destroy the enemy’s anti-access/area denial networks at longer ranges, thereby creating windows of opportunity for exploitation by the joint force. “What we are doing answers the fundamental question of Multi-Domain Operations, which is a question of access,” he asserted. We achieve that by developing systems that ensure overmatch in range and lethality at echelon.”
At the strategic level, for example, the LRPF CFT is supporting two systems: the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command’s pursuit of the Long Range Hypersonic Weapon and development of a technology demonstration of a strategic long-range cannon. “The reason we are focused on these two systems is really pretty clear when you evaluate the target set of the A2AD systems,” he said. “You realize that’s a mixture of very heavily defended, fortified, strategic infrastructure and C2 sites, as well as a combination of mobile TELs [transporter erector launchers], radars and other lighter-skinned or area targets.”
Another project the Pentagon is talking up is to develop a Strategic Long-Range Cannon with a mind-boggling range of 1,150 miles—far enough for cannons based in Europe to bombard targets in western Russia. The program was recently mentioned in September 2018 when Gen. John Murray testified before the House Armed Services Committee: “We are looking very hard and starting down the path of hypersonics and also looking at what we call the Strategic Long-Range Cannon [SLRC], which conceivably could have a range of up to 1,000 nautical miles [1,150 miles].”Rafferty also indicated the SLRC will at least be “moveable” or “relocatable,” though not “mobile.” Realistically, the huge weapon would have to be based in Europe
In a modern threat environment, wherein near-peer and smaller-level rivals increasingly possess precision-guided land weapons, longer-range C4ISR technology and drone weapons, increasing range is a ubiquitous emphasis across the Army and other services. Russia’s violations of the INF treaty, new S-500 air defenses, new Armata tanks and fast growing attack drone fleet — all point to a growing need for the U.S. to out-range and out-gun potential adversaries.
US Army outlines Strategic Long-Range Cannon investment
The US Army has laid out plans to spend USD228 million over the next three years to develop a Strategic Long-Range Cannon programme that will increase the reach of its artillery forces. In fiscal year 2020 (FY 2020) budget documents, the service broadly outlines plans to move forward with a Strategic Long-Range Cannon initiative that will encompass the weapons and munitions arena to provide soldiers with a future “deep strike” capability.
“It will demonstrate revolutionary performance to support long range fires by further developing, integrating, and demonstrating enhanced lethality and range extension solutions for cannon system performance with maximum effects,” the army explained.
It’s unclear how on Earth such an extraordinary range could be achieved, though various analysts have suggested it may involve a combination of improved propellants and rocket-assistance in flight. Exotic delivery systems such as railguns have also been suggested. In an interview with Sydney Freedberg of Breaking Defense, Army Col. John Rafferty, director of the Long-Range Strategic Fire program, claims the SLRC simply involves scaling up technologies already being developed for the rocket-boosted shells of the M109 howitzer.
Such a gun could usefully fire at diverse fixed, high-value assets located far behind the frontlines, such as fuel and ammunition dumps, command centers, air defense radars, hangars and flight lines at airbases, and even enemy missile and artillery units. However, the army would either need to develop very long-range surveillance assets to locate such targets which it hasn’t possessed in the past, or learn to integrate such intel from other services.
The SLRC would likely use GPS-guided shells, reducing the need for larger warheads sizes and making the system precise-enough to be useful against military targets instead of simply serving as a terror weapon like the Paris gun. Even with a GPS guidance system and a rocket booster, the SLRC’s supersonic artillery shells could be considerably cheaper than a slower cruise missile with similar range, allowing for a greater sustained volume of fire.