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Ukraine Proves the U.S. Army Needs Mobile, Long-Range, And Precise Artillery

M109 Paladin. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

The U.S. Army is currently investing in two of the three critical capabilities for future fires systems (artillery, rockets, and missiles). These capabilities are range and precision. The Army even calls its fires modernization effort the Long-Range Precision Fires (LRPF) program. But what Army fires systems also need is mobility. While new systems such as the Extended Range Cannon Artillery (ERCA), Precision Strike Missile (PrSM), Strategic Mid-Range Fires (SMRF) and the Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon (LRHW) will be deployed in mobile configurations, the current plan does not envision a mobile system to replace the aging towed M777s, 155mm howitzers that equip a variety of formations, notably the Stryker Brigade Combat Teams (SBCTs).

This is a mistake. The Army needs to invest in a mobile 155mm howitzer, at least for its SBCTs. There are a number of foreign, truck-mounted 155mm systems already in service around the world that could be acquired.

To a large extent, the Russia-Ukraine conflict has turned into an artillery/missile war. Early on Russia was firing as many as 20,000 shells a day. The Russian army is paying particular attention to counter-battery fires, looking to use its advantages in long-range artillery systems to eliminate Ukraine’s artillery.

Russian early success with its artillery and rocket systems led to the decision by the U.S. and other NATO countries to provide Kyiv with longer-range fires systems and precision-guided artillery projectiles. These systems have proven highly effective as well as survivable. The West has delivered an array of long-range fires systems, such as the Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS), the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS), and the M109 and PzH2000 tracked 155mm howitzers. Ukraine also has been the recipient of hundreds of old-style towed artillery pieces, including obsolescent U.S. M777s. However, these systems lack the range of MLRS and HIMARS or the survivability of tracked howitzers.

Russia has claimed to have successfully destroyed a number of MLRS and HIMARS launchers, which Western sources have dismissed as propaganda. Russia also has apparently not had much success against Western self-propelled howitzers, such as the M109. However, Russia seems to have had success in locating and attacking Ukraine’s towed artillery pieces, both old Soviet equipment and the more modern Western models, which demonstrates how it would fare in a wider conflict. This success has generally been attributed to the inherently low survivability of unprotected artillery and the length of time it takes towed pieces to set up fires and then redeploy.

The U.S. Army anticipated much of what the Russian army would do in Ukraine with respect to its artillery, particularly its use of long-range strike systems to attack opposing fires systems, command and control centers, fixed installations, and troop concentrations. Recognizing it was both outnumbered and outranged by Russian fires systems, the U.S. Army created the LRPF program as one of its six core modernization priorities.

Much of the LRPF effort has been directed at developing very long-range fires. The PrSM will, at minimum, reach out 500 kilometers. The LRHW is envisioned to reach several thousand kilometers. There is also the relatively new SMRF system intended to service targets in the space between the range of the PrSM and that of the LRHW. The Army plans to employ versions of the Tomahawk Land-Attack Missile and Standard Missile 6 as its mid-range weapons. Each of these systems will incorporate advanced guidance technologies.

The Army has paid some attention to extending the range and precision of tactical systems. It is developing the ERCA, a tracked system based on the current 155mm M109 Paladin. With a longer barrel than the Paladin and employing rocket assisted projectiles, the ERCA can engage targets out to 70 kilometers.

Range and precision are just two of three critical features to future fires systems that the Army has addressed in its LRPF program. It still needs to address the third feature, which is the mobility of fires systems.

Portions of the Army, notably the Armored Brigade Combat Teams (ABCTs) with their M109 Paladins and HIMARS, already have mobile artillery. But the rest of the Army’s combat formations, consisting of SBCTs and Infantry Brigade Combat Teams (IBCTs) still rely largely on towed 155mm artillery for long-range fires. It makes no sense to invest in modern, mobile fires systems for the ABCTs while hampering the otherwise highly mobile SBCTs with a towed artillery system. But even in the IBCTs, a mobile artillery system would be more survivable. The combination of mobile artillery and longer-range precision projectiles will create a more lethal and survivable fires capability for the SBCTs and IBCTs.

The Army needs to complete its fires modernization effort by acquiring a mobile 155mm artillery system, at a minimum, for the SBCTs. Fortunately, the Army has readily available options. A number of countries have developed truck-mounted 155mm systems that the Army could acquire. These include the French Caesar, Israeli Atmos, British Archer and U.S. Brutus. The French, British and Israeli systems are operational. Colombia recently announced it was buying the Israeli Atmos system. France has committed some 30 Caesar systems to Ukraine.

A truck-mounted howitzer has several advantages over towed artillery. Obviously, they are more mobile. This means that the artillery can more readily keep up with the other wheeled vehicles in the SBCTs. But more importantly, they can set up, shoot, and start moving in a matter of minutes. This means the unit can execute a mission and disperse before an enemy can find and target them. Given the proliferation of extremely sophisticated and highly responsive counter-battery capabilities, being able to “shoot and scoot” is the key to survivability.

More than a year ago, the Army conducted an evaluation of these four truck-mounted 155mm systems. It is likely that one of these will meet the SBCT’s requirements.

A non-developmental, truck-mounted 155mm howitzer might not be as flashy a modernization program as PrSM, LRHSW, or even ERCA, but it is equally important. Given the evidence from the Ukraine conflict, the Army needs to ensure that all its deployed artillery systems have a combination of range, precision, and mobility. The Army should, at a minimum, acquire a sufficient number of an existing truck-mounted 155mm howitzer to equip its Europe-based SBCT brigade.

Dan Gouré, Ph.D., is a vice president at the public-policy research think tank Lexington Institute. Gouré has a background in the public sector and U.S. federal government, most recently serving as a member of the 2001 Department of Defense Transition Team. This first appeared in RealClearDefense. 

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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.