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Smart Bombs: Military, Defense and National Security

The Ukraine War Proves the U.S. Army Needs New Mobile 155mm Howitzers

M777 Howitzers. Image Credit: Creative Commons.
U.S. Marines with Golf Battery, 2d Battalion, 11th Marines, currently attached to the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, and Australian Defence Forces with 109th Battery, 4th Regiment, fire an M777 155 mm Howitzer during Exercise Talisman Sabre 21 on Shoalwater Bay Training Area, Queensland, Australia, July 17, 2021. Australian and U.S. Forces combine biennually for Talisman Sabre, a month-long multi-domain exercise that strengthens allied and partner capabilities to respond to the full range of Indo-Pacific security concerts. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Ujian Gosun)

Artillery may again become the King of Battle. The Russia-Ukraine conflict is turning into a brutal slugfest. Using tactics reminiscent of those employed in both World Wars, the Russian Army is relying on massive artillery barrages to drive back Ukrainian defenders along the Luhansk-Donetsk front. They are also using indirect fires to go after Ukrainian long-range fire systems. As a result, truck-mounted and self-propelled artillery systems and multiple rocket launchers have become the proverbial coin-of-the-realm for the Ukrainian Army. This should be a lesson for the U.S. Army, which has to decide soon on a replacement for its towed M777 155mm howitzers that equips both divisional artillery and the Stryker Brigade Combat teams. The Army’s next 155mm howitzer must be more mobile, which means it must be truck-mounted.

The dominant feature of the current phase of the Russian-Ukraine war is the leading role played by artillery and rocket systems. The Russian Army is employing massed fires with these systems to grind down Ukrainian defenses. It has also made destroying Ukrainian artillery systems, particularly those provided by NATO, a priority.

Ukraine’s number one priority for military assistance is more artillery and rocket systems and ammunition for them. The Kyiv government has asked for 1,000 howitzers and 300 Multiple Launch Rocket Systems such as the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS).

Artillery and rocket systems have been among the most donated items provided by the U.S. and its NATO allies to Ukraine. The Biden Administration alone has provided to date 108 155mm howitzers, over 220,000 155mm artillery rounds, 90 Tactical Vehicles to tow 155mm howitzers, and a number of HIMARS and associated ammunition. Allies such as the U.K., Canada, and Australia have also provided M777s. In addition, NATO members including France, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic have provided or pledged dozens of self-propelled or truck-mounted artillery systems.

Despite the many examples of its tactical and operational failures, the Russian Army has proven itself relatively adept at conducting counter-battery fires. There are numerous reports of Russian artillery wiping out Ukraine’s towed systems such as the M777 almost the moment they arrive at the front. In particular the combination of unmanned surveillance systems, precision targeting, and rapid-fire systems is providing highly effective.

It is not enough to have long-range systems that can fire rapidly. They also must be able to move rapidly so they can “shoot-and-scoot.” The conflict in Ukraine is making the case for mobile artillery. Unprotected, relatively immobile towed artillery is too vulnerable in an era marked by ubiquitous tactical surveillance and long-range fire systems.

It is noteworthy that Western countries are not only sending truck-mounted, long-range artillery to Ukraine but acquiring them for their own armies. Truck-mounted artillery systems are fairly common in the inventories of armies around the world. But the U.S. relies either on fully self-propelled armored systems such as the M109 Paladin in its Armored Brigade Combat Teams, or on towed artillery. Based on the events in Ukraine, a number of countries have placed orders to acquire new truck-mounted heavy howitzers. France’s Caesar system is particularly popular.

The U.S. Army figured out some years ago that it had serious deficits when it came to long-range fires. To fix this problem, it made Long-Range Precision Fires (LRPF) its number one modernization priority. The Army is developing a set of new capabilities such as the Extended Range Cannon Artillery, Precision Strike Missile, Mid-Range Missile, and a land-based hypersonic missile. It is also investing in the sensing and command and control to exploit the additional range.

In developing LRPF capabilities, the U.S. Army recognized that long-range fires are really a battle of seconds. There is the need to find and fix a target and engage it in a matter of seconds. In last year’s Project Convergence experiments, the Army reduced the sensor to shooter timeline to a matter of seconds.

But there is also a need for long-range fire systems that can set up, fire, and then move in minutes. As demonstrated in recent conflicts in Eastern Europe and the Caucuses, mobility and range are the keys to survival on the modern battlefield.

A major deficit in U.S. fires exists in the Stryker Brigade Combat Teams (SBCTs) which will play a key role in future conflicts on the European continent or in the Middle East. While almost all its vehicles are wheeled and protected, the SBCTs must make do with the towed M777. The Army has a plan to replace these systems with a howitzer that has greater range, better rate of fire, improved survivability, and mobility.

In light of the aging M777 system, and the lessons of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the U.S. Army should make the acquisition of a truck-mounted howitzer a priority. As U.S. Army forces flow back into Europe in order to deter a high-end conflict with Russia, it is critical that the SBCTs be re-equipped with a truck-mounted artillery system.

A truck-mounted howitzer has several advantages over towed artillery. Obviously, they are more mobile. But more importantly, they can set up, shoot, and move in a matter of minutes. This means the unit can execute a mission and disperse before an enemy can find and target them.

The U.S. Army was smart to look at existing systems, rather than starting from scratch to develop their own. Last year, it conducted a shoot-out involving four truck-mounted 155mm howitzers: the British Archer, the Israeli Atmos, the French Caesar, and the U.S. Brutus. The first three of these systems are already deployed with the army of their countries of origin as well as having been bought by other militaries. While the results of this effort have not been published, there seems to be no reason one or even all four of these systems could not fit the SBCT’s requirements.

The U.S. Army may not be quite ready to institute a program to replace all the towed 155mm howitzers in the SBCTs. But it could acquire a sufficient number of a truck-mounted system for the SBCT currently deployed to NATO. This would both enhance the effectiveness of a critical formation and give the Army a chance to work with the platform. As a result, it could make a more informed decision on providing a truck-mounted replacement for the M777.

Author Biography and Expertise: Dr. Daniel Goure, a 1945 Contributing Editor, is Senior Vice President with the Lexington Institute, a nonprofit public-policy research organization headquartered in Arlington, Virginia. He is involved in a wide range of issues as part of the institute’s national security program. Dr. Goure has held senior positions in both the private sector and the U.S. Government. Most recently, he was a member of the 2001 Department of Defense Transition Team. Dr. Goure spent two years in the U.S. Government as the director of the Office of Strategic Competitiveness in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He also served as a senior analyst on national security and defense issues with the Center for Naval Analyses, Science Applications International Corporation, SRS Technologies, R&D Associates, and System Planning Corporation.

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Dr. Goure is Senior Vice President with the Lexington Institute, a nonprofit public-policy research organization headquartered in Arlington, Virginia. He is involved in a wide range of issues as part of the institute’s national security program.