- Since World War II, the US military has reduced the importance of artillery, relying on air power to support troops.
- In recent years, Russia and China have made significant progress in their artillery forces.
- The US military is currently developing several land-based weapons capable of firing over tens or even hundreds of kilometers.
“Artillery is the god of war,” said Joseph Stalin, whose big guns shattered Hitler’s armies.
Today’s Russian military has continued the tradition with a formidable array of howitzers and multiple rocket launchers. But in the United States, the god of war now has feet of clay.
American guns were feared by the Germans and Japanese during World War II, proved vital in Korea and Vietnam, and are said to have helped defeat a Soviet invasion of Europe. But since 1945, air power became the favorite child of the American firepower family.
It is easy to understand why. In the jungles, deserts and mountains where American forces have primarily fought since World War II, artillery was often too heavy to use, but the aircraft had the speed and flexibility to provide the necessary firepower. Better yet, air power was a high-tech solution to avoid bloody ground combat that would erode the support of the American public.
The end of Cold War accelerated decline. From 218 artillery battalions in 1989, the number of Regular Army, Reserve and National Guard units fell to 141 in 1999. During the 2003 Iraq War, well-trained artillery crews were used as infantry.
However, the US Army belatedly realized that it needed its big guns.
First, as Russia and China modernized their artillery, the United States spent the 2000s focusing on counterinsurgency (COIN) against poorly armed militants rather than conflict against well-armed great powers.
When highly skilled gunners were reassigned to infantry in Iraq, it was an indication that the artillery had lost its mojo.
Unfortunately, America’s enemies thought otherwise:
“As the U.S. Army’s Field Artillery Branch dealt with the implications of COIN from 2003 to the present, the armies of a number of potential competing nations have made significant progress,” noted one. study 2019 by the RAND company.
“For example, as of 2017, the Russian military has made significant progress in its artillery. The main capabilities of Russian artillery include long-range multiple rocket launchers, such as the BM-30 Smerch, which can fire a wide variety of warheads up to 90 kilometers [56 miles]. The SS-26 Iskander short-range ballistic missile also fires various warheads (including nuclear weapons) against targets at ranges of over 400 kilometers. [249 miles].”
In contrast, the US military Paladin M109A7 the 155 mm self-propelled howitzer has a range of only 22 kilometers [14 miles] with regular explosive shells, and 30 kilometers [19 miles] using rocket-assisted projectiles.
In the past, this might not have been such a problem. For long-range firepower, the Army could rely on the US Air Force (while the Marines could also turn to Navy carrier aircraft and naval gunfire). But a new generation of Russian and Chinese fighters and anti-aircraft missiles have made the skies deadlier for American planes.
For Russia and China, accustomed to fighting without air superiority in World War II and Korea, large amounts of artillery was the answer. For the US military, the deprivation of air support would be devastating.
Fortunately, the U.S. military is developing several long-range land-based weapons, with plans to field them perhaps as early as 2023. This is part of the military’s concept of multi-domain operations, one of the principles of which is is the ability to deliver over the long term. precision shots from a distance. New weapons include:
- Extended Range Cannon Artillery (ERCA), essentially an upgraded paladin with a longer barrel, rocket-assisted projectiles, and autoloader. The aim is to hit targets up to 70 kilometers (43 miles), more than double the range of the Paladin. (ECRA achieved this with an Excalibur Guided Hull in a December 2020 test).
- Precision Strike Missile (PrSM), a guided rocket capable of being launched from the M270A1 Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS) and M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS), over a range of 500 kilometers (311 miles).
- Long Range Hypersonic Weapon (LRHW), the Army’s Contribution to the Emergence of the United States family of hypersonic missiles which travel faster than Mach 5. The LRHW has an estimated range of 1,725 miles.
- Long range strategic cannon (SLRC), intended to launch shells at 1,000 miles. But for now, the supergun project seems to be on hold.
So why does the US military need weapons capable of hitting targets nearly 2,000 miles away?
Historically, artillery has been a battlefield weapon, from the Roman ballista that threw stones 500 yards, to the US Army’s 280mm M65 cannon that could fire atomic shells up to 20 miles.
By 1918, however, the destruction of distant targets was becoming the responsibility of the world’s air forces.
One answer is interdepartmental rivalry. It’s only natural that the Army would want to join the Navy and Air Force in having a long-range firing capability, with all the prestige and budget that entails.
Another is that air power is not always an option and is rarely as profitable as artillery.
From the Army’s perspective, having an in-house long-range fire capability is essential for its plan to become a “multi-domain operations ready force of 2035.”
Even though today’s warfare is supposed to be joint, what army commander wouldn’t want to have long-range weapons under his control to destroy a distant enemy command post, rather than having to ask the Air Force and Navy to do so?