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The US Army needs to fix its remaining ‘fires’ gap

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In recent years, the U.S. Army’s top modernization priority has been long-range precision fires (LRPF). As the war in Ukraine demonstrates, this was a prescient decision. But when it comes to addressing the needs for an entirely new portfolio of fires systems, the Army has only solved part of the problem.

In the next year or two, the Army expects to field several new fires systems, including the Precision Strike Missile (PrSM), Strategic Mid-Range Fires (SMRF), and Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon (LRHW). These will give the Army the ability to engage targets at ranges between 100 and several thousand kilometers. What remains to be accomplished is the fielding of new capabilities to provide precision fires at ranges less than 100 km. The Army’s sole modernization program in this area is the Extended Range Cannon Artillery (ERCA),

Moreover, while the ERCA is expected to have twice the range of the current self-propelled howitzer, the M109 Paladin, it will go to Armored Brigade Combat Teams and higher-echelon formations. The remaining gap in the Army’s new fires portfolio is a replacement for the venerable towed 155mm howitzer, the primary long-range fires system for Infantry Brigade Combat Teams (IBCTs) and Stryker Brigade Combat Teams (SBCTs). The Army needs to solve this problem by investing in a more survivable and lethal wheeled 155mm system.

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A team of artillerymen assigned to 2nd Battalion, 17th Field Artillery Regiment, 2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division prepare to fire an M777 Howitzer during an artillery training exercise on January 12, 2023 in South Korea during Korea Rotational Force 12. (Photo by Sgt. Jerod Hathaway/2ID Rotational BDE)

Following Moscow’s 2014 seizure of Crimea and the emergence of a continuous conflict in the Donbas, the U.S. Army confronted the prospect of armed conflict with Russia. In assessing its relative strengths and weaknesses in comparison to the Russian military, the U.S. Army realized that it had a major deficit in both capabilities and capacity to conduct long-range fires. The U.S. Army was both outranged and outnumbered by Russia’s long-range fires systems.

Existing U.S. Army cannon artillery, the M109A7 Paladin self-propelled 155mm howitzer and M777 towed 155mm howitzer, each have maximum ranges of 40 km with enhanced munitions. The Army’s two battlefield rocket systems are the Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS), with a maximum range of 92 km, and the Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) with a range of 180 km. The Army needed fires capabilities with greater range, precision, and rates of fire. It also enables these capabilities to be more survivable, primarily through improved mobility.

Faced with the prospect of a great power conflict, the U.S. Army instituted a program to modernize critical capabilities, with its highest priority being long-range precision fires. The Army’s LRPF modernization program is focused on four new capabilities the ERCA, PrSM, SMRF, and LRHW. It is worth noting that each of these programs will be mobile, either on an armored chassis or on a truck.

The ERCA is intended to complement the improved version of the M109A7 Paladin self-propelled howitzer. Built on a Paladin chassis, the ERCA has a longer barrel which together with a new rocket-assisted guided projectile is expected to provide nearly double the range of the M109A7 or 70 km. An autoloader is planned for the ERCA, which would significantly increase its rate of fire.

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ERCA extended range cannon artilery
Extended Range Cannon Artillery (ERCA) program supported by ACCNJ #contractingforvictory. (Photo by Kristen Rounsaville/U.S. Army Contracting Command)

The PrSM is a replacement for the ATACMS. Two PrSMs can be carried in a single ATACMS launch pod, effectively doubling available rounds. It will engage targets between 60 and 500 km with great accuracy. PrSM can be launched by the Army’s existing family of launchers.

The SMRF is intended to provide long-range precision fires for the space between the maximum ranges of the PrSM and that of the LRHW. This capability is based on the Tomahawk cruise missile and the Standard Missile 6, both currently in production.

The last Army fires program is the LRHW, which has a range of up to 2800 km. The LRHW intended to go after deep targets, including command and control facilities, air and missile defense complexes, and long-range fires systems.

There remains one glaring capability gap in the Army’s fires portfolio: a replacement for the M777 towed howitzer. Army leadership has long recognized the need to find a new system. The Ukraine war has made this an imperative. While Western-supplied towed 155mm howitzers have helped the Ukraine Armed Forces to hold back the Russian Army, this system is highly vulnerable to counterbattery fires due to the time it takes to set up, fire and move. In addition, the rate of fire for the M777 is not sufficient.

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M1909 155mm Paladin
U.S. Soldiers assigned to the 166th Cavalry Regiment, calibrating a Paladin M109A6 155mm Army System during Decisive Action Rotation 15-09 at the National Training Center, Fort Irwin, Calif. The National Training Center provides an opportunity for soldiers to use their skills in an immersive and realistic environment. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Christopher Blanton)

While Armored Brigade Combat Teams have the Paladin armored self-propelled 155mm howitzer, and will receive the ERCA, IBCTs and SBCTs are currently equipped with the towed M777. As a result, these formations are outranged and outgunned by both Russian and Chinese land-based tactical fires. The SBCTs, built around the Stryker armored wheeled vehicle, are particularly in need of a more mobile and lethal 155mm system.

The solution is a truck-mounted 155mm system, and such systems are available. They include the French Caesar, the British Archer, and the Israeli ATMOS. France and Denmark have provided about 40 Caesar truck-mounted 155mm systems to Ukraine, where they are reported to have performed extremely well.

These systems are significantly better than the towed M777. They can set up, fire multiple rounds, and redeploy in a matter of minutes. This makes it hard for an opponent to employ counterbattery fires. Versions with an armored cab are inherently more survivable than towed systems. In addition, because these systems are mounted on a truck, they can keep up with fast-moving units such as the SBCTs.

Almost two years ago, the Army ran a shoot-off involving four truck-mounted 155mm howitzers: the British Archer, the Israeli Atmos, the French Caesar, and U.S. Brutus. The Army is reported to be conducting studies of its tactical fires portfolio and cannon modernization options. At present, there are no indications of how or when the Army intends to fix the remaining gap in its fires portfolio.

Rather than more studies, the Army needs to move out now and acquire one of the operational truck-mounted 155mm howitzers. It can start by replacing the towed 155s in European-based SBCT to evaluate their performance. Ultimately, the Army needs to replace the towed 155mms in all the SBCTs. IBCTs in the I and III Corps are also candidates to receive the new system.

This article by Dan Goure was originally published by

Feature Image: U.S. Marines with India Battery, Battalion Landing Team 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, fire an M777A2 Lightweight Howitzer during MEU Exercise 14 aboard Camp Pendleton, Calif., Nov. 17, 2014. The purpose of MEUEX is to train the different elements of the 15th MEU to work together to complete various missions. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Jamean R. Berry/Released)

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