Artillery: U.S. Army Revives The Big Stuff

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November 24, 2021: The U.S. Army is reactivating its 56th Artillery Command, which had been deactivated in 1991 because the Soviet Union had dissolved and the successor state, Russia, had a much smaller military, only 20 percent the size of the Soviet force. Russia agreed to a new IRNF (Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces) treaty which banned the use of missiles with ranges from 500 to 5,500 kilometers, which is what the 56th Artillery Command was originally created to operate. In 2019 the U.S. left the IRNF because of Russian violations of the range restrictions.

Currently the army has three new long-range missiles in development and all three are to be ready by 2023. The new missiles include the Precision Strike Missile, with a range of 500 kilometers, a Mid-Range Strike Missile with a range of 1,600 kilometers and a Long Range Hypersonic missile with a range of 2,700 kilometers.

All these missiles use existing tech and the army plans to use the surface-to-surface version of the navy’s SM-6 anti-aircraft missile and Tomahawk cruise missiles to provide long range missiles quickly. The Long Range Hypersonic missile is a 7.4 ton two-stage missile that first reaches a high altitude and then turns towards the surface target like a ballistic missile warhead which travel at high speed because of that plunge from high altitude. The max speed of the Hypersonic Missile is about 2,100 kilometers an hour. That is 583 meters a second, which is as fast as a high-powered rifle bullet.

.The return of the 56th Artillery Command and all these new long-range guided missiles is part of a decades old trend in artillery. For example, in 2004, when the counter-terrorism campaign began in Iraq, it was quickly realized that artillery units were not needed. Smart bombs were far more accurate and effective. GPS guided Excalibur artillery shells did not show up until 2007. In the meantime, most artillery units were temporarily converted to light infantry, and performed security and counter-terrorism tasks. Eventually, many Cold War era artillery units were disbanded, made obsolete with the arrival of GPS guided shells and GMLRS rockets. The GMLRS was a GPS guided version of the unguided MLRS rocket. Current GMLRS have a max range of 70 kilometers and the new GMLRS ER has a 140-kilometer range.

There was also ATACMS (Army Tactical Missile System, the large rocket fired from MLRS launchers). The original ATACMS had a range of 300 kilometers and a 230 kg (500 pound) warhead. A planned replacement for ATACMS called Deepstrike was renamed Precision Strike Missile. This is a thinner rocket so that two can be fitted into a MLRS container that currently holds one ATACMS. Deepstrike was designed to be capable of hitting targets 500 kilometers away and has more capable guidance system features.

The ATACMS is a 610mm ballistic missile that fits in the same size container that normally holds six 227mm MLRS rockets. The latest upgrades have been to the guidance system. In 2017 ATACMS was given the ability to hit moving targets, specifically ships at sea. ATACMS has sufficient range for that and the U.S. pioneered the development of terminal guidance systems for ballistic missiles in the 1970s (the Pershing mobile missile). Since then, the U.S. has developed similar guidance systems so that high-speed missiles can hit moving targets. It was not difficult to then develop a terminal guidance system for ATACMS that searches for a certain size ship and heads for it while moving at more than a thousand meters a second, which is faster than most bullets. The ATACMS guidance system has also received a proximity detonation capability so that it can be programmed to explode in the air above a target. All the current ATACMS needs is the GPS coordinates of the moving target (which can be on land or sea). Since max flight time (at max range) is only a few minutes it is easy to predict where the moving target will be based on aerial, satellite, or sonar detection. It takes less than a minute to update the guidance system and launch. If nothing else this will give potential naval foes something more to worry about and be a popular export item as well.

Most current ATACMS are armed with a 227 kg (500 pound) high explosive warhead. The U.S. used over 700 ATACMS, most of them in Iraq and Afghanistan combat operations and their performance was excellent, especially the guided ones. Nearly 4,000 ATACMS have been built since the mid-1980s and about 70 percent are still available for another upgrade. In addition to those used in combat about three percent were fired for training or testing. ATACMS currently use GPS guidance to hit targets up to 300 kilometers away.

In 2011 Version 1A-2 of the U.S. Excalibur 155mm GPS guided shell was cleared for use in combat. This is the extended range version, which can hit targets with precision up to 40 kilometers away with the M777 howitzer, or up 60 kilometers with longer barreled howitzers. This was particularly useful in Afghanistan, where the then current (23 kilometer) shell was restricted by its short range. Even so, some veteran American artillerymen were firing their 155mm guns for the first time in four or five years, now that they were operating in Afghanistan instead of Iraq.

While the Excalibur proved useful in Iraq, it didn't increase the workload of the few 155mm howitzers that were being used there. But Afghanistan was a different story, with the troops spread over a much larger area. This was the kind of situation that the new M777 towed 155mm howitzer was made for. The artillery battalions attached to combat brigades once more had something to do in Afghanistan. GMLRS was also very useful in Afghanistan, especially the HIMARS version which used a heavy truck to carry and launch six rockets, or two of the new Precision Strike Missiles.

The longer ranges of the 56th Artillery Command will enable it to, if needed, hit targets in the Middle East or Africa.

 


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