Artillery: What Mobility and Accuracy Cost

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August 11, 2019: The Indian Army is using some of its small emergency procurement procedure fund to purchase some GPS guided Excalibur 155mm artillery shells for its new M777 155mm howitzers (or K9 155mm self-propelled guns). The first of seven M777 artillery regiments enters service this year. The emergency purchasing money was made available as a result of the February 2019 military crises with Pakistan. The Excalibur was preferred because it was a proven weapon, even though it had only been in service since 2005 and costs about $60,000 each. India did not want a guided shell that was prone to problems. India already went through that two decades ago when they sought to use their new Russian 155mm laser guided shells in combat.

Problems with getting "smart shells" to work effectively are nothing new. Back in the 1980s, the American 155mm Copperhead round was developed, at great expense, to take out tanks with one shot. The Copperhead was laser-guided. That is, it homed in on laser light that a forward observer created by pointing a laser at the target. It was the same technique used with laser-guided bombs. But this was expensive technology for an artillery shell. Each of the 3,000 Copperhead shells eventually built cost several hundred thousand dollars. The price varied, up to half a million bucks, depending on who was doing the calculating. While a "dumb" artillery shell can, at best, land within 75 meters of the aiming point, the Copperhead would land within a meter or two. But so what? It turned out there were many easier, and cheaper, ways to destroy enemy tanks. This was demonstrated during the 1991 Gulf War, when a few Copperhead shells were used, successfully, but to reactions of, "whatever."

Russia developed its own version of Copperhead, Krasnopol, and sold some to India. During a 1999 conflict with Pakistan, high in the Himalayan Mountains, Krasnopol proved very useful in taking out enemy bunkers without causing avalanches or destroying the few pathways up the steep hills. However, Krasnopol had not been tested at such high altitudes (over 4,000 meters) and in such cold weather. There were problems encountered that had to be fixed.

The Indians paid about $40,000 for each Krasnopol shell (two thirds what the Copperhead was supposed to cost originally) and eventually found it a good investment. This encouraged the American developers of the next generation smart shell, Excalibur. But GPS guided shells proved to be a tough technology to perfect, and when Excalibur arrived, it found itself with some stiff competition. In Iraq, the troops had been using the 227mm MLRS GPS guided rocket for two years. With a range of 70 kilometers, a few GMLRS (G for "Guided") vehicles (each carrying six rockets) can cover a huge area with very accurate fire. The GMLRS has been a great success, and the army had to hustle to get enough rockets built to meet demand. The shorter range Excalibur was more popular because of its smaller explosive load. Each 45.5 kg (100 pounds) shell has about 9.1 kg (20 pounds) of explosives. The 227mm MLRS GPS rocket carried over 68 kg (150 pounds) of explosives. In too many cases range was the key factor. The GMLRS could reach the target, Excalibur could not. After a few years, Excalibur was upgraded to handle longer distances and has been called on more often. But Excalibur still has too much cheaper and more effective competition. More and more guided missiles are appearing, including some the infantry can carry with them. Excalibur is a major breakthrough for the past. In the recent fighting in Syria, where Syrian Kurds were sometimes supported by a battery (six guns) of M777 howitzers, a cheaper GPS guidance system for 155mm shells was used.

While there are cheaper alternatives, the Excalibur has proved the most accurate option and remains in demand for those situations where “too much accuracy” is not enough. The cheaper alternative, the M1156 PGK (Projectile Guidance Kit), can turn any 155mm shell into a GPS guided one but it generally lands 3-5 times farther away from the target than Excalibur, is less reliable , and costs about 70 percent less. PGK showed up seven years after Excalibur and proved effective enough to gain a lot of sales that would otherwise have gone to Excalibur. But the need for extreme accuracy was still there and so was the demand for Excalibur.

Over a thousand Excalibur shells have been used already and have proven reliable and very accurate by usually landing within two meters of where aimed. Troops who have a choice still preferred Excalibur. But in combat, there are many situations where a little less accuracy, and a much lower cost per shell, is more important. That proved to be true when a cheaper, but less accurate, alternative to Excalibur showed up. The cheaper alternative was more likely to be available and most troops could not tell the difference except in rare situations were that extra bit of accuracy and reliability was a matter of life or death. Experienced combat troops have encountered these situations, especially when fighting in densely built urban areas, where the more accurate Excalibur is a lifesaver, enabling friendly troops to get closer to the enemy and still call in artillery fire and that making the enemy use of nearby civilians as human shields much less effective.

Both Excalibur and PGK provide unprecedented accuracy. An unguided shell will normally land within 267 meters of where it is aimed at maximum howitzer range (18 kilometers). The original Excalibur shell was built to always land within 10 meters of the target and subsequent upgrades have reduced that to about two meters. But PGK was a lot cheaper, got to be nearly as accurate as the early Excalibur and turned any unguided shell into a GPS guided one. The U.S. Army sent the first PGKs to Afghanistan in 2013, after successful testing in the United States. The big question was how important would the troops find the accuracy and reliability differences between Excalibur and PGK. Initially, the army bought 2,400 PGKs and the U.S. Marine Corps got 700. There was one export customer. Australia ordered 4,000 PGKs and it was the Australians and other export customers who made PGK the preferred solution for GPS guided shells. The Australians had used Excalibur and were even more discouraged by the high price. But PGK was a bargain and more flexible in comparison to Excalibur.

With PGK the army has two GPS guided artillery shells; the older, more accurate and expensive Excalibur and the new M1156 PGK. The advantage PGK has is that the GPS guidance is not built into a shell but instead it is a slightly heavier (about 1.4 kg/3 pounds) and larger fuze that screws into the front of a 155mm. This PGK fuze contains a GPS and small fins to guide the shell to a precision hit. Normally the fuze just controls how the shell will explode or when (using a timer or small radar). No one had been able to put a GPS guidance in such a small package but many have been trying for several decades.

The original (2009) version of PGK was much less precise than Excalibur and could only ensure that the shell landed within 50 meters (160 feet) of the target. If it did not hit within 150 meters, PGK deactivated and the shell did not explode. The original version of PGK was subsequently tweaked so that by 2012 it landed within 32 meters (100 feet). By 2012 PGK was been further improved to put a guided shell within 19 meters (60 feet). By 2015 accuracy was improved to 10 meters or less and the reliability problems largely eliminated as the PGK was now over 90 percent reliable.

Meanwhile, early users noted that the less accurate PGK was adequate for most missions requiring a guided shell, but not all situations. Potential export customers were particularly eager because they had plenty of 155mm shells and word of the PGK accuracy and reliability improvements had gotten around, especially “customer satisfaction” comments from troops who called in PGK fire during combat. The lower cost was a big deal because it meant units could have a lot more access to GPS guided artillery fire when using PGK fuzes. Excalibur was so expensive that it was made available only in limited quantities.

India wants Excalibur for use against a small number of specific Pakistani targets along the northwest (Kashmir) border. Thus the more expensive Excalibur makes more sense than the cheaper PGK, which the Indians know all about. But first things first. That’s something India larned during the decade of effort it took to obtain the M777 howitzers, which are lightweight and preferred for combat in places like Kashmir. These innovative artillery weapons could not be obtained with emergency funds.

India began negotiating to obtain the M777 over a decade ago. By 2016 an Indian firm (Mahindra) and BAE (a major British arms manufacturer) agreed to jointly produce 145 M777 howitzers for the Indian Army. It was only in mid-2015 that India and BAE finally settled all their contract differences and confirmed the M777 sale. One of the conditions was BAE finding an Indian firm to assemble the howitzers in India. The Mahindra M777 facility began production in late 2018 and delivered their M777 howitzers to the Indian army by late 2019. BAE delivered the first 25 M777s already assembled so that crew training could get started and the first M777 regiment could get started.

India first approached BAE about buying the M777 in early 2010. Indian army artillery officers required a few years to convince their own procurement bureaucrats that the M777 was an ideal weapon for India. Selling weapons to India is a very complicated process, made more complex since 2006 because of an escalating Indian crackdown on weapons procurement corruption. Thus Indian procurement bureaucrats became even more troublesome and obstinate. The M777 deal was almost completed in 2013 but more problems kept showing up. The army was determined to get these howitzers and made a major effort to deal with the obstacles. This sale went through the BAE American subsidiary, which because of its size, ownership and track record basically operates as an American defense firm.

With this purchase, India was joining the many Western nations in using the M777. India obtained the lightweight (3.4 ton) M777 howitzers for about $5 million each. India is particularly attracted by the fact that the M777 can be slung under a helicopter, and thus quickly moved to inaccessible areas near the Pakistani and Chinese borders.

The M777 is, at four tons (for the standard version), the lightest 155mm towed howitzer ever fielded. M777 fire control is handled by a computerized system that allows faster response time and more accurate shooting. The M777 can use all current 155mm ammunition. The guided rounds cuts ammo use enormously. Helicopter are the preferred method of moving the M777 across rough terrain. An M777 on a mountain top, with a few dozen Excalibur, provides precision fire support for troops within a 30-40 kilometer radius. Indian land borders are largely mountainous, and difficult to reach by land routes, especially for artillery that could not be flown in. The M-777 changes that.

The M777 is also the first new artillery for the Indian Army since the late 1980s. Currently, most Indian artillery is either obsolete or soon to be. All these guns are also quite worn and less reliable as a result. Decades of pleas to parliament to speed up the acquisition of new weapons were ignored until 2010.  Since then public pressure and the rapidly deteriorating (and publicized) state of Indian artillery led to some action.

 


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