FORT LIBERTY, N.C. — The U.S. Army is working on a new conventional fires strategy expected by the end of this year, according to Gen. James Rainey, who leads Army Futures Command.
“We did a very deliberate strategic fires study that underpin the long-range precision fires efforts,” Rainey told Defense News in an exclusive July 27 interview on his way to Fort Liberty, North Carolina, to speak to soldiers at the Association of the U.S. Army’s Warfighter Summit.
“We’re doing that same thing now for conventional fires,” he said, adding that “precision fires are critical, but conventional fires are critical also.”
Rainey said the time has come for analysis that can inform the artillery strategy based on both “what’s happening in Ukraine” as well as what U.S. Army Pacific needs in terms of conventional fires.
Indeed, the Army has sent large amounts of artillery to aid Ukraine in its fight against the Russian invasion, including at least 198 155mm howitzers, 72 105mm howitzers, several million artillery rounds and 38 High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, according to a July 25 Pentagon fact sheet.
The strategy will determine both capability and capacity of what exists and what the Army may need, Rainey said. The strategy will also consider new technology to enhance conventional fires on the battlefield, such as advances in propellant that make it possible for midrange cannons to shoot as far as longer-range systems.
Robotics is another area that will influence the strategy, such as autoloaders for munitions. The Army has experimented with autoloaders for artillery as well as ways to improve howitzer firing rates overall.
“Some of our NATO allies have some really good kit [and] capability that we’re interested in,” Rainey noted.
The Army is currently developing an Extended Range Cannon Artillery system that uses a service-developed 58-caliber gun tube mounted on the chassis of a BAE Systems-made Paladin Integrated Management howitzer.
The Army is building 20 prototypes of the ERCA system: two for destructive testing, and the remaining 18 for a battalion set to receive the weapons by the fourth quarter of fiscal 2023. That unit will then run the cannons through a yearlong operational test.
Observations in early testing of prototypes are showing excessive wear on the gun tube after firing a relatively low number of rounds. The Army plans to gather more information throughout operational testing to determine reliability.
The service is already looking at ways to improve the rate of fire before the gun tube requires replacement through adjustments in materials used and the design of the tube, adjustments to propellants, and the design of artillery rounds fired from the cannon.
ERCA’s role in the strategy remains to be seen, but the prototype program is experiencing some delay, according to Doug Bush, the Army’s acquisition chief.
Even so, “the requirement for extended-range fires is absolutely a valid requirement,” Rainey said.
“I think everything we’re seeing in Ukraine [is] about the relevance of precision fires, all the emerging technology, but the big killer on the battlefield is conventional artillery, high-explosive artillery,” he said.
The Army previously planned for a Strategic Long-Range Cannon that would achieve artillery ranges of 1,000 nautical miles, but scuttled the science and technology program in 2022.
The service also took a look at readily available 155mm mobile howitzers in 2020 in order to find anything that might offer an improvement in range, rate of fire, and mobility over the artillery systems used within Stryker brigade combat teams. The Army evaluated at least four foreign companies’ offerings in a shoot-off but did not move forward with a new capability.
Jen Judson is an award-winning journalist covering land warfare for Defense News. She has also worked for Politico and Inside Defense. She holds a Master of Science degree in journalism from Boston University and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Kenyon College.