While the Army has a variety of means to deliver long-range fires, such as organic attack helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and air support from Navy and Air Force aircraft, these assets are frequently unavailable due to adverse weather and terrain as well as availability. U.S. Army cannon artillery and missile and rocket systems, on the other hand, generally do not suffer from these restrictions and are part of Army formations from the brigade
to corps level.
According to one study, Russian artillery, particularly rocket launchers with conventional, thermobaric, and cluster munitions—using unmanned aerial systems (UAS), both for target location and battle damage assessment—is particularly effective against Ukrainian light armor and infantry formations. In a similar manner, China is reportedly upgrading both its cannon and rocket artillery. Another study noted: The entrance of the Chinese and their greater emphasis on much heavier, longer-range rockets that begin to bridge the gap between rocket artillery and short-range ballistic missiles could have a significant effect over time in extending the trend toward long-range strike systems.
Improvements to potential adversaries’ artillery systems present a challenge to the U.S. military, the Army in particular.In addition to the challenge of improved artillery system capabilities and new employment techniques, the proliferation of special munitions—such as precision, thermobaric, and top-attack munitions—has renewed concerns about the potential impact of enemy cannon and rocket artillery on U.S. combat operations and ground combat systems. A diminished U.S. artillery capability—based on fewer units, limitations on cluster munitions use, and shorter effective ranges—could present significant battlefield challenges for the U.S. Army.
In response to this challenge, the U.S. Army is seeking to improve its ability to deliver what it refers to as long-range precision fires (LRPF) by upgrading current artillery and missile systems, developing new longer-range cannons and hypersonic weapons, and modifying existing air- and sea-launched missiles and cruise missiles for ground launch by Army units.
Both the 2018 National Defense Strategy and the Army’s Multi-Domain Operations operational concept call for improved Army LRPF capability to counter what has been described as Russian and Chinese anti-access, area denial (A2/AD) strategies designed to limit the freedom of movement and action of U.S. forces in both Europe and the Pacific region.
In December 2018, the Army introduced its Multi-Domain Operations (MDO) operational concept. According to the Army, MDO was developed in response to the 2018 National Defense Strategy, which shifted the previous focus of U.S. national security from countering violent extremists worldwide to confronting revisionist powers—primarily Russia and China. The MDO concept is to prevail by competing successfully in all domains, short of conflict, to deter a potential enemy. If deterrence fails, Army forces—along with the Joint Force—are to
- penetrate enemy anti-access and area denial systems (layered and integrated long-range precision-strike systems, littoral anti-ship capabilities, air defenses, and long-range artillery and rocket systems) to enable strategic and operational maneuver of U.S. forces;
- disintegrate—disrupt, degrade, or destroy enemy anti-access and area denial systems to enable operational and tactical maneuver of U.S. forces;
- exploit the resulting freedom of maneuver to achieve operational and strategic objectives by defeating enemy forces in all domains; and
- recompete—consolidate gains across domains and force a return to competition on favorable terms to the United States and allies.
According to the Army, successfully prosecuting an MDO requires longer-ranged, precision artillery systems that can counter enemy long-range precision-strike systems and penetrate and disintegrate enemy defenses. MDO is to be a central feature of the new Joint Warfighting Concept featuring All Domain Operations—“next-generation, information-based wars using enormous amounts of fast computer analysis across the land, air, sea, space and cyberspace domains.”
The Army has five major programs or efforts underway or under consideration to improve long-range precision fires capabilities:
- The Extended Range Cannon Artillery (ERCA) program plans to develop a system capable of
accurately firing at targets more than 70 kilometers away, an improvement over the 30-kilometer target distance of current systems. The ERCA Program is intended to develop a system that can accurately fire at targets more than 70 kilometers away—a dramatic increase over the 30 kilometers that a currently fielded M-1097A 155 mm howitzer can fire. The ERCA program essentially consists of two items: a new rocket-boosted shell, the XM1113, and a longer howitzer barrel adapted to the current M-1097A Paladin system. The longer barrel design contains the rapidly expanding propellant gasses longer, which enables the projectiles to accelerate at greater speeds before exiting the muzzle. Also planned for development are an autoloader to increase the howitzer’s rate of fire as high as 10 rounds a minute (or one shell every six seconds) and a communications system that are to work in GPS-denied environments. In December 2020, a prototype ERCA system reportedly hit a target 70 kilometers (43 miles) away during testing at Yuma Proving Ground, Arizona.
According to the Army, in October 2019, it conducted demonstrations of the new XM1113 and Excalibur M982 munitions from a prototype ERCA self-propelled howitzer and test shots exceeded previous maximum ranges.
- The Precision Strike Missile (PrSM)is a surface-to-surface, all weather, precision-strike guided missile fired from the M270A1 Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS) and the M142 High Mobility Artillery. PrSM, which is intended replace ATACMS, doubles the current rate-of-fire with two missiles per launch pod. A ballistic missile with a cluster munition-compliant payload, the PrSM is to be used for attacking threat air defense systems, missile launchers, command and control centers, troop assembly/staging areas, and high-payoff targets throughout the battlefield. The missile is designed to exceed a range of more than 500 kilometers. Lockheed Martin is currently the PrSM’s only prime contractor. The Army plans to start operational testing in August 2024 and achieve Initial Operational Capability in August 2025.
- The Army is examining the feasibility of developing a Strategic Long-Range Cannon (SLRC) that can fire a projectile at hypersonic speeds up to 1,000 miles to engage air defense, artillery, and missile systems and command and control targets. The SLRC is to consist of a cannon, prime mover and trailer, and projectiles capable of delivering massed fires at strategic ranges.54 The SLRC battery is to include four special platforms with cannons and heavy equipment transporters for the battery’s other equipment. Each SLRC could be manned by a crew of eight soldiers.
- The Army, Navy, Air Force, and Missile Defense Agency (MDA) are developing a Common- Hypersonic Glide Body (C-HGB), which the Army plans to use as part of its Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon (LRHW) program, enabling the C-HGB to be launched from mobile Army ground missile launchers. Hypersonic weapons are capable of flying at five times the speed of sound and operate at varying altitudes, making them unique from other missiles with a ballistic trajectory. The Army Long Range Hypersonic Weapon (LRHW) will introduce a new class of ultrafast, maneuverable, long-range missiles that will launch from mobile ground platforms. The Army’s intent is to [f]ield a prototype long-range hypersonic weapon to the strategic fires battalion by fiscal year 2023. This includes hypersonic missiles with the C-HGB, existing trucks and modified trailers with new launchers, and an existing Army command-and-control system.
- Finally, the Army is attempting to modify existing Navy SM-6 and UGM-109 Land Attack Missiles for ground launch to provide the Army with a mid-range missile capability. In early 2020, the Department of Defense reportedly determined the Army should be assigned a mid-range capability mission. Seeming to affirm this, in July 2020, Army Chief of Staff General James McConville suggested that “the Army would pursue mid-range capabilities, and that, “we’re going to have mid-range missiles that can sink ships.” On November 6, 2020, the Army awarded Lockheed Martin a $339.3 million contract to “design, build, integrate, test, evaluate, document, deliver, and support” a new Mid-Range Capability, or MRC, essentially converting the Navy Standard Missile (SM)-6 and Tomahawk cruise missiles into a prototype land-based missile system that can strike targets in the range of 500 to 1,500 kilometers, or 310 to 930 miles. The effort builds off tests that the Army conducted last August. The goal is to have an operational new land cruise missile by 2023…. After that 2023 date, the Army will “explore the possibility” of going “beyond the prototype and see if that mid-range capability could be integrated onto an autonomous launcher that would augment existing formations.”
Some of the Army fires will be ballistic, some will be air-breathing, some will be hypersonic gliders. They will have variable ranges and warheads tailored to specific effects. Collectively, they can cover the full range of threats that might arise in China’s littoral regions, including maritime threats.
All of these weapons afford pinpoint accuracy, thanks to their reliance on joint sensor and networking assets that enable the Army to find targets outside its traditional operating envelope. By fusing sensor collections from diverse sources, the Army can target everything from Chinese amphibious ships to remote airfields to command centers directing combat operations. These capabilities are so far beyond anything the Army had in the past that they will require new doctrine, new training and new organizational constructs.
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.
Army Secretary Christine Wormuth remarked in Oct 2021 at the Association of the U.S. Army’s annual conference in Washington that 2023 will be “the year of long-range precision fires.”She was referring to the fact that several munition programs with ranges far exceeding what was common in Army fires only a generation ago will begin reaching the force in that year.
Some of the new systems, carrying conventional (non-nuclear) warheads, will have the ability to destroy pinpoint targets hundreds of miles away—even if they are hardened, even if they are moving.
Long-Range Precision Fires (LRPF) Missile
The mission of the Long Range Precision Fires (LRPF) Missile is to attack, neutralize, suppress and destroy targets using missile-delivered indirect precision fires. LRPF provides field artillery units with long-range and deep-strike capability while supporting brigade, division, corps, Army, theater, Joint and Coalition forces and Marine Corps air-to-ground task forces in full, limited or expeditionary operations. The LRPF will replace the Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) capability, which is impacted by the age of the ATACMS inventory and the cluster munition policy that removes all M39 and M39A1 ATACMS from the inventory after 2018.
LRPF will provide the warfighter with an all-weather, 24/7, precision surface-to-surface deep-strike capability. Deep-strike capability will reach farther than 300 km
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.
The U.S. military seeks a revolution in long-range surveillance and targeting by deploying more and better sensors and developing advanced data management with a heavy reliance on artificial intelligence (AI).