Monday, March 12, 2007

Rethinking artillery and self-propelled howitzers

My recent post decrying the significance of the Army's forthcoming FCS Non-Line-of-Sight Cannon platform provoked some bitter comments from the artillery community. I won't get into the details of some of the more colorful e-mails I received, but most characterized me as a 'typical rocket-lover.' Many also pointed out the collective inability of M-270 Multiple Launch Rocket System advocates to move out their mother's basement and have carnal relations with the opposite sex.

This isn't the first time I have provoked the ire of artillerymen and when I do, I am usually confronted with the following questions:

1. Why do you hate artillery(men)?

I don't hate the artillery or artillerymen. In fact, I think indirect fire is still a critical player on the battlefield and on a personal level, two of my most significant professional influences were former artillerymen (including CSBA's Bob Work). Setting those affinities aside, I think that howitzers must go the way of the dodo for one simple reason, which is that they don't fit well into the era of guided-weapons warfare. The GPS-guided XM982 Excalibur 155mm howitzer round has the potential to bring traditional artillery into this precision-age. The Army tried this once before with the laser-guided M712 Copperhead, but the munition underperformed on the battlefield and was discontinued.

The problem encountered with the Copperhead was that the explosive power of the powder increments did not mix very well with its guidance system. The M712's engineers managed to hardened the optical sensor well enough, but there were a number of problems maintaining overall quality control on the shells. The Excalibur's engineers have applied some pretty unique tricks to boost the reliability of their product, but I hear that the transition to full production isn't exactly running smoothly.

Since rockets and gravity bombs do not undergo the same physical strain as traditional artillery at the beginning of their flight, their guidance systems don't require the same degree of hardening. This provides non-shell munitions natural architectural advantage that allows for higher performance and better precision.

2. Why do you oppose the idea of building a new self-propelled howitzer for the Army?

I don't object to the notion of a new self-propelled howitzer per se, but I have qualms with the assumption that it must be manned. In my mind, an artillery battery is the perfect operational concept for automation:

- An artillery battery is tight formation of vehicles.

- Each gun in a battery receives its fire mission from a common controller.

- Howitzers generally engage their targets with no line of sight.

- Batteries do not fire while moving.

Why not mount artillery cannons on six unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) and tie each into a single command and control (C2) truck? It would easier to program UGVs to follow a manned 'mother vehicle' than to program them to operate autonomously anyways. You could also reduce the weight of each howitzer without compromising the survivability of its crew. Combining the role of driver and gunner into a single UGV operator would also allow reduce the number of troops needed to operate a battery. A heavily modified pair of Buffalos might even provide an off-the-shelf solution for the C2 vehicle.

My hypothetical battery of unmanned howitzers may be a pipe dream, but it highlights a critical point that the Army seems to continually miss. The Crusader and the NLOS-C are a waste of money because they only provide incremental evolution at a considerable cost.

If the Army wants Future Combat Systems to catalyze a revolution on the battlefield, it will have to more than merely integrate traditional platforms into a common network. Retired admiral Bill Owens's emphasis on linking 'sensors to shooters' is just the first step. FCS planners must be willing to complete abandon traditional notions of tactics and operations if they want their capitalization plan to truly innovate.

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