Among the new modernization priorities that have become cross functional teams, the top priority listed by top Army leadership was the long range precision fires work.
The Army has become, by its own admission, overly reliant on a permissive air environment and the blessings that unfold with close air support, Air Force long-range strike and “golden hour” capable casualty evacuation.
Those decades of uncontested airspace that previous generations of soldiers enjoyed can no longer be counted upon.
And it’s not just in the close fight that air is challenged. Advanced, interlocking networks of air defense strung along the borders and beyond by near-peer competitors such as Russia and China mean that at times the joint force can be hamstrung in even gaining access, leaving the Army far from the fight.
To get after that problem set, Brig. Gen. John Rafferty has his team looking at everything from increasing range and accuracy of the tried-and-true base of the artillery – 155mm – to a new Precision Strike Missile and hypersonic that will put the Army back in the strategic fires game for the first time in a long time.
Rafferty spoke recently with Army Times about those developments and what is headed to fires formations in the coming years.
First, the newly promoted brigadier general had to tip his hat to a combination of efforts in both structure, new organizations such as the CFTs and Army Futures Command, and focused centers that are finding new ways to solve the distance and accuracy problems of expanding how the fires community contributes to the maneuver fight.
Shortly before an interview with Army Times, Rafferty had just been briefed by the Readiness and Analysis Center at AFC at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico. They provided a “lethality analysis” of near peer threats in fires. While he couldn’t disclose details of the briefing for obvious reasons, he did say that the renewed efforts on tactical, operational and strategic fires are meeting previously identified gaps.
“Conclusions? We’re in the right place and (Artificial Intelligence) and sensor investment could improve that,” he said.
Rafferty said that developments by adversaries to negate U.S. advantages have meant the development of coastal defense, long range air defense and extremely long range artillery.
The U.S. solution has multiple answers.
Strategic fires include the Army’s Space and Missile Command’s Long Range Hypersonic Weapon and the Strategic Long Range Cannon.
And while putting steel on target is one method, the future will likely combine the kinetic with cyber and electronic warfare to both disable enemy systems and combine to create windows of opportunity for the kinetic strike and maneuver.
Over the past year, Rafferty said, the joint force’s science and technology community has been working with commercial industry and NASA on some specific tech challenges. The Army’s Science Board has deemed what they’re trying to do in the hypersonic arena as entirely feasible. Tests coming soon at White Sands will try to get through an early technology gate.
Those efforts could result in a full-fledged Army program before 2023, he said.
He couldn’t speak to specific ranges, due to security concerns, but said that hypersonics are looking at ranges in the “thousands of kilometers,” while the strategic cannon is in the “hundreds of kilometers” range.
Operational-level fires is focused on the Precision Strike Missile, or PrSM.
The existing Army Tactical Missile System has its limits. It has been in service since the 1980s. While it’s been upgraded several times and will continue to be upgraded under a service life extension program to keep it in the inventory for another decade, it is seeing the horizon of its usefulness.
And there’s the range. The ATACMS pushes out to about 300km. Which was fine under past conditions but can’t keep up with current competition.
The PrSM will push its range out past 500km now that the United States no longer has to restrain its systems to under that range due to the break of the INF Treaty.
The PrSM will be cheaper to produce than the ATACMs and provide two missiles per pod where now its only one per pod with the ATACMs, Rafferty said.
That helps logistics, the number of launchers needed for certain mission sets and flexibility for commanders on how to load out their force. They expect initial fielding of some of those systems by 2023, with another add-on “technology spiral” two years later that will add in ways to hit precision emitting targets and operate more effectively in maritime environments and more contested areas.
Tests later this year will establish which companies will continue to the end of the competition. The next wave of development will push the missile’s range past the 650km range, he said.
“We’re committed to the shape and size and keeping two per pod,” Rafferty said. “But we have to be a little bit patient with the technology.”
That’s, in part, because the pre-existing INF treaty didn’t just limit fielding but also limited investment in research and development for improving those systems, especially long range propulsion.
Down at the tactical level, where most soldiers get to hear things go “boom,” is work on Extended Range Cannon Artillery. The ERCA program is putting a lot of changes to both the self-propelled howitzer system and the round it uses.
The big project is one that’s been moving along for more than a year now, that’s Paladin Integration Management. The PIM program is modernizing the self-propelled howitzer with a robust chassis, safety improvements, electrical system improvements, an auto-loader and longer cannon for longer ranges.
Rafferty announced that shift earlier this year. The cannon will push from a 39 caliber to a 58 caliber length, extending the barrel from 20 feet to 30 feet. Cannon calibers are also a function of length, unlike with rifle caliber barrels.
And the Paladin now has a sliding block breech, like what the tanks use. That means it can withstand more powerful charges in its round and a higher rate of fire without breaking.
“Essentially, its an indestructible type of breech,” Rafferty said.
But what’s inside that breech is what makes the impact.
The 155mm round is undergoing changes it likely hasn’t seen in decades. New propellants, precision guidance kits and other technologies are pushing the round out to the 70km range in testing, that’s more than double the standard limit of about 30km.
Rafferty said the team expects the first battalion’s worth of the new system fully fielded by 2023.
But, there are hurdles. Pushing the limits of physics comes with its own set of challenges.
They’re having to do more gun hardening work to help the systems withstand the increased pressures and stresses.
Even precision guidance brings novel obstacles to overcome. For example, by firing such long ranges, the 155mm rounds are reaching altitudes they had not previously reached.
That means that their guidance kits mush bear the temperature changes and also move through thinner air, which changes the calculus by which they’re set to hit their targets.
And new propellants are pushing muzzle velocities and chamber pressures to numbers that they’ve not had to operate before.
“We’re on the margin of what cannon artillery can do but we’re going forward with those margins,” he said.
And all of these tech changes are having their own ripple effects as far reaching as how the Army fights.
“We view fires as essential to (multi-domain operations),” Rafferty said. “It absolutely changes what’s possible for the Army to do and what fires can do to enable that.”
Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.