Artillery: Switching Emphasis To Defense


June 20, 2010: The U.S. Army has spent the last decade developing, and successfully using, a wide array of precision munitions. Laser and GPS guided weapons like Hellfire missiles, and GPS guided 155mm shells and 227mm rockets have all proven themselves in combat. These weapons work, have been widely available and changed the way troops operated in combat. So successful was this precision weapons effort, that the army has cut back on purchases of these weapons. That precision resulted in far fewer weapons being needed, even fewer than the most optimistic estimates. So now the army is shifting its development efforts to more effective systems to defend against enemy mortar shells and rockets. These are a major source of casualties, and bad for morale.

The army already has produced some defensive systems, and success here has led to more emphasis on defense. The most successful existing system is the C-RAM (Counter-Rockets And Missiles) anti-rocket system. This is used to defend bases in Iraq and Afghanistan. C-RAM is basically the American Phalanx naval gun system with new software that enables it to take data from its own, or other radar systems, and shoot down just about any kind of artillery shell or rocket within range. It uses high explosive 20mm shells, that detonate near the target, spraying it with fragments. By the time these fragments reach the ground, they are generally too small to injure anyone. At least that's been the experience in Iraq. The original Phalanx used 20mm depleted uranium shells, to slice through incoming missiles. Phalanx fires shells at the rate of 75 per second. Another advantage of C-RAM, is that it makes a distinctive noise when firing, warning people nearby that a mortar or rocket attack is underway, giving people an opportunity to duck inside if they are out and about.

The first C-RAM was sent to Iraq in late 2006, to protect the Green Zone (the large area in Baghdad turned into an American base). It was found that C-RAM could knock down 70-80 percent of the rockets and mortar shells fired within range of its cannon. In the last four years, Centurion systems in Iraq have intercepted several hundred rockets or mortar shells aimed at the Green Zone and other bases. Not bad, since it only took about a year to develop C-RAM. A C-RAM system, which can cover an area about four kilometers wide, costs $15 million. In addition to the United States, Britain and Israel have also bought C-RAM. There is a mobile version, mounted on a flatbed trailer, and hauled by a tractor.

Another success has been improved models of the decades old artillery locating radars. These have been tweaked to locate where mortars (firing shells at U.S. bases) are. This enables one to fire back, and to go after fleeing mortar crews. But the big push now is to develop systems that will intercept rockets or shells before they land in American bases.

Israel has had similar problems with rockets being fired from Lebanon and Gaza. This led to the Israeli Iron Dome anti-rocket system. Israel is buying seven batteries, to be delivered over the next two years. Each battery has radar and control equipment, and four missile launchers. Each battery costs about $37 million, which includes over fifty missiles.

During tests, the system detected and shot down BM-21 and Kassam (homemade) rockets. Iron Dome uses two radars to quickly calculate the trajectory of the incoming rocket (Palestinian Kassams from Gaza, or Russian and Iranian designs favored by Hezbollah in Lebanon) and do nothing if the rocket trajectory indicates it is going to land in an uninhabited area. But if the computers predict a rocket coming down in an inhabited area, a $40,000 guided missile is fired to intercept the rocket.

This makes the system cost-effective. That's because Hezbollah fired 4,000 rockets in 2006, and Palestinian terrorists in Gaza have fired over six thousand Kassam rockets in the past eight years, and the Israelis know where each of them landed. Over 90 percent of these rockets landed in uninhabited areas.

Then there are APS (Active Protection Systems) developed to protect armored vehicles from anti-tank missiles (ATGM). The Israeli Trophy system is regarded as the most effective one in service. Trophy consists of a radar to detect incoming missiles, and small rockets to rush out and disable the incoming threat. A complete Trophy system weighs a ton. Russia pioneered the development of these anti-missile systems. The first one, the Drozd, entered active service in 1983, mainly for defense against American ATGMs. These the Russians feared a great deal, as American troops had a lot of them, and the Russians knew these missiles (like TOW) worked. Russia went on to improve their anti-missile systems, but was never able to export many of them. This was largely because these systems were expensive (over $100,000 per vehicle), no one trusted Russian hi-tech that much, and new tanks, like the American M-1, were seen as a bigger threat than ATGMs.

The Israeli Trophy uses better, more reliable, and more expensive technology than the Russian Drozd (or its successors.) For about $350,000 per system, Trophy will protect a vehicle from ATGMs as well as RPGs (which are much more common in combat zones.) Israel is the first Western nation to have a lot of their tanks shot up by modern ATGMs, and apparently fears the situation will only get worse, as Hezbollah has apparently obtained a lot more Kornet missiles (which were mostly used against Israeli infantry, who coped by learning to maneuver differently.)

Israel first encountered ATGM, on a large scale, in the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. But these were the clumsy, first generation ATGMs. These turned out to be more smoke than fire. But the latest ATGM, like Kornet, are more deadly, but not by a whole lot. Nevertheless, Israel is getting ready. Israel tried to sell Trophy to the United States, but without success.

The U.S. Army plans to examine all these existing technologies, and see how they can be combined, and improved, to provide even better defenses.






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