By Dan Gouré*
The U.S. Army’s highest-priority modernization effort is long-range precision fires. The goal is to provide the Army and the Joint Force with fires systems that will be able to outrange and outshoot opposing forces and field the first units by the mid-2020s. The Army’s current program, managed by the Long-Range Precision Fires (LRPF) Cross-Functional Team (CFT), envisions an array of fires systems–cannons, rockets and missiles–that, taken in totality, will be able to engage targets at ranges from the close-in battlefield to the adversary’s strategic depth.
In the short time since it was created, the LRPF CFT has put together an impressive set of programs that have the promise of transforming long-range fires. First, there is the Extended Range Cannon Artillery (ERCA). The new cannon is based on the M109A7 Paladin Self-Propelled Howitzer, itself a substantial upgrade of this system. With a longer barrel and new breach, the ERCA will be able to fire advanced precision-guided shells up to 70 kilometers and even up to 100 kilometers, more than twice the range of existing artillery systems.
The next system in the LRPF CFT’s portfolio is the Precision Strike Missile (PrSM). The PrSM is intended to replace the Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) with a new weapon that will have not only a significantly increased range but also precision guidance and specialized payloads that will enable it to attack a broader target set, including ships. The plan is to use existing launchers for the PrSM. With its smaller diameter, two of the new missiles will be carried in each launch tube, effectively doubling a launcher’s loadout.
Achieving overmatch in long-range fires will require weapons that can reach out thousands of kilometers to precisely strike high-value military targets such as command centers, air defenses, missile batteries, and logistics centers. To meet this requirement, the Army has tasked its Rapid Capabilities and Critical Technologies Office, supported by the LRPF CFT, to pursue two programs. The first is the Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon (LRHW). This will be a ballistic missile with a hypersonic warhead that can travel many times the speed of sound for several thousand miles.
The second is the Strategic Long-Range Cannon (SLRC). The concept for the SLRC is a large cannon capable of firing a high volume of relatively cheap rounds to ranges of 1,500 kilometers or greater.
Not only is the Army looking to field multiple new long-range fires systems at the same time, but it also wants to begin fielding the first units in the near-term. The Army hopes to have the first unit equipped with the earliest versions of the ERCA, PrSM and LRHW by 2023. The SLRC program is seeking to develop a prototype by 2023 with a decision to acquire the weapon around the end of the decade.
As the Army made progress on multiple long-range fires programs, it discovered a gap in the capabilities it was developing. The PrSM had initially been designed to adhere to the range limit of 550 kilometers imposed by the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. The LRHW and SLRC are intended for very-long range strikes against targets at 1,500 kilometers or further. The cost of the LRHW also means it is likely to be reserved for extremely high-value targets.
Army Futures Command realized that they needed a mid-range fires capability specifically designed to address targets at ranges between about 550 and 2,000 kilometers. But how could they squeeze yet another major development program into the array of fires systems already underway?
In order to meet the stringent timeline established for achieving overmatch in long-range fires, the LRPF CFT made a wise decision. Instead of starting with a new missile, the CFT chose to take two existing Navy systems, the Standard Missile-6 (SM-6) and the Tomahawk cruise missile, and adapt them to serve as the Army’s new mid-range, ground-launched fires systems. By choosing to modify two highly successful, long-established missiles, the Army not only reduced risk and development costs but increased the likelihood of being able to introduce the new capability relatively soon. The challenge will be integrating the new missile with existing launchers and command and control capabilities.
The Standard Missile family traces its roots back to the mid-1960s. Originally designed as a surface-to-air interceptor, the Standard Missile has been progressively modified to take on new threats and missions. The SM-2 with the Aegis Missile Defense System has served as the centerpiece of Navy air defense for decades. The SM-3 is primarily designed to intercept ballistic missiles. In a recent test, an SM-3 Block IIA successfully knocked down an ICBM. The SM-2 is being replaced by the SM-6, a longer-range, more capable interceptor designed to engage cruise and short-range ballistic missiles as well as aircraft.
The initial land-attack variant of the SM-6 will be based on the existing missile which has a surface attack mode. The missile will be enhanced with a new warhead and guidance system. Plans are in place to exploit the work done on the SM-3 to field an improved version a few years later.
Like the Standard Missile, the Navy’s Tomahawk cruise missile has been around for many years. It has undergone continuous improvements. The newest Block V variant retains the ability of the older Block IVs to precisely attack high-value targets with minimum collateral damage at long ranges, while adding anti-ship and hard-target kill capability. The Navy has developed a Maritime Strike Tomahawk specifically designed for anti-shipping missions. An earlier version of the Tomahawk was the basis for the Ground-Launched Cruise Missile, a theater nuclear weapon eventually banned by the INF Treaty. The new Army variant of the Tomahawk will carry a conventional warhead.
By working with existing weapons systems, the Army hopes it can accelerate development of a mid-range capability. The current plan is to deploy prototype capabilities consisting of missiles, launchers and a battery operations center by 2023.
Innovation is not always about new technologies. Finding new ways of applying existing weapons systems with some modification can be a rapid and relatively low-cost way of achieving a major improvement in capabilities. The LRPF CFT’s plans for advanced fires systems all involve a mix of proven, fielded systems with cutting edge technologies. This is equally true for the proposed new mid-range missile.
*Dan Gouré, Ph.D., is a vice president at the public-policy research think tank Lexington Institute. Goure 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. You can follow him on Twitter at @dgoure and the Lexington Institute @LexNextDC.