Artillery: Excalibur or Bust


June 1, 2006: While the U.S. Army is determined to ship the first 500 Excalibur GPS guided artillery shells to troops in Iraq and Afghanistan by this fall, improved (longer range, more reliable) versions will take longer. Higher than expected development costs have driven the cost per shell to about $80,000. Half of that is actual manufacturing cost, the other half is fifteen years worth of development expenses.

One reason development took so long, and cost so much (over a billion dollars) was that, initially, Excalibur was going to be less accurate, and just disperse a few bomblets that would cripple tanks and kill infantry. But in 1998, it was found possible to include much more accurate GPS guidance. Three years later, it was decided to dispense with the bomblets and just use a more accurate, high explosive shell. After 2001, it became obvious the highly accurate weapons were all the troops wanted. GPS guided JDAM smart bombs showed that. So Excalibur had to adapt to compete, and is now basically an artillery version of JDAM. After word of the successful Excalibur tests got around, the troops became very eager to get Excalibur. The hundred pound shell is the perfect weapon for taking out bad guys who prefer to fight in the midst of innocent civilians. If American troops hurt any civilians while fighting Islamic terrorists, the Americans get blamed. Don't matter if the terrorists started the fight. The terrorists deliberately use civilians for cover, knowing full well that the civilians so used could get hurt. To the terrorist, dead or wounded civilians are a bonus, as they know the media will tend to blame the Americans.

U.S. troops also want Excalibur because it saves American lives as well. The 155mm Excalibur shell can be used at closer ranges (to nearby American troops) than the smallest current smart bomb (a 500 pounder). The enemy knows that if they get close enough to friendly troops, the American can't call in artillery or smart bombs, because of the "safe range" (from the explosion for friendly troops). The difference in safe range between Excalibur and a 500 pound JDAM is over a hundred meters. Moreover, Excalibur is available all the time, not just when a bomber is overhead.

The first Excaliburs reaching U.S. and Canadian troops in the Fall will have a range of 23 kilometers, and reliability of only about 75 percent. Sometime in 2008, a new version of Excalibur should appear with a range of over 35 kilometers (and eventually up to 60 kilometers). These versions will have reliability of over 90 percent.

An even cheaper smart shell is also in development. This is the Projectile Guidance Kit (PGK), which is actually a large fuze, that screws into the front of a 155mm or 105mm shell. This longer fuze contains a GPS and small fins to guide the shell to a precision hit equal to an Excalibur shell. The army doesn't expect to be passing these out to the troops for another five years. But if development goes smoothly, and Excalibur proves useful and popular, then the PGK might show up earlier. The PGK will cost less than half what each Excalibur does and, more importantly, can turn any shell into a smart shell. This is important for artillerymen, who don't like to carry around a lot of special shells, just in case. Artillery units already carry several different types of fuzes for their shells, so one more is not seen as a burden.

The pinnacle of artillery operations has always been, "one shot, one kill." But achieving this has always been like a golfer getting a hole in one. It can be done, but it's rare. Smart shells make "one shot, one kill" commonplace, and means artillerymen will spend less time constantly replenishing their ammunition supplies. Firing the cannon less often is also nice, as those beasts are a bitch to keep clean.




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