WASHINGTON: For the first time since the Soviet Union fell, the Army is developing weapons with a thousand-mile range. That’s roughly five times the range of anything the Army fields today and three times the range of previously announced programs. The payoff in a future war with Russia or China could be dramatic – but the technological, financial and even legal problems are daunting.
The ambition? Develop not one but two types of ultra-long-range missiles to help blow holes in advanced air defenses:
- One Army weapon, not yet officially named, would be a high-performance hypersonic missile, tearing through missile defenses at Mach 5-plus to kill critical hardened targets such as command bunkers.
- The other, the Strategic Long-Range Cannon (SLRC), would use a gun barrel to launch cheaper, slower missiles at larger numbers of softer targets like radars, missile launchers and mobile command posts.
Together with comparable weapons launched from jets, ships, and submarines, these ground-launched “strategic fires” would blast a path for attacking aircraft, from Army helicopters to Air Force bombers. That kind of mutual support – formally known as Multi-Domain Operations – would transform the Army’s role from a consumer of the other services’ support to a full partner in providing long-range firepower.
The Hard Part(s)
The problems? For a start, the Army, with its 20-year-track record of cancelled programs, is now tackling cutting-edge technologies, although it has done key work on hypersonics in the past. The Army is also creating a new category of weapon with no existing cadre of trained personnel or established budget share – both of which must come at existing constituencies’ expense. Army leaders are already cutting other efforts to fund their top six priorities, of which Long Range Precision Fires is No. 1, but as the Big Six grow, so will resistance.
What’s more, the Army has no experience finding targets, planning and executing strikes at 1,000-mile ranges, as the Air Force and Navy do. The service has created a new Army Multi-Domain Targeting center to train soldiers in joint targeting.
But there’s a delicate balance here, The Army must learn from the other services how to work together better – vital to Multi-Domain ops against Russia and China – without poaching their missions and budgets thus starting a turf war within the Pentagon.
Army engineers are working closely with the Air Force Research Laboratory, Naval Research Laboratory, and NASA, among others, on an upcoming technical demonstration, Col. John Rafferty assured me in an interview. Soon to be a brigadier general, Rafferty leads the Army’s Long-Range Precision Fires Cross-Functional Team (LRPF CFT), giving him direct and regular access to the service’s top four leaders.
“I’ve heard the Army senior leaders say several times that we aren’t entering the strategic fires arena for the Army’s sake,” Rafferty told me. “We’re doing this for the joint force,” as part of multi-domain operations against Chinese and Russian-style Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) defenses.
“It’s well supported by senior leaders in the Department of Defense,” he added.
There’s one last catch, however. If the Army can overcome all these technical, institutional, and financial challenges to make ground-launched strategic fires work, deploying them would almost certainly be the fatal blow for the 1987 Intermediate Range-Nuclear Forces treaty (INF), an arms control pact already battered by Russian violations and which China never signed.
Army leaders have hinted for months they’d like something in the 500 to 5,500 kilometer (312 to 3,438 miles) range banned by the treaty, and there’ve been multiple reports the Army was working on 1,000-mile-plus weapons, but there’s been no official confirmation.
So, I asked Rafferty, how long a range are we talking about? Is roughly 1,000 miles correct?
“I don’t want to be more specific,” he answered, but that figure “was accurate at the time” it was published – just over a month ago.
Precision & Mass
Why is Army developing two kinds of ultra-long-range weapons? “You need a mix of some precision and some mass,” Rafferty told me.
The precision killer will be hypersonic. That means a missile capable of traveling more than five times the speed of sound in the atmosphere, able to not just move fast but to maneuver to avoid enemy defenses. (Ballistic missiles are even faster but go through space and can’t maneuver much).
At such speeds, the sheer force of impact – if applied precisely to the target – can be as damaging as a conventional explosive blast. So the hypersonic weapon will be reserved for the hardest, most important targets, such as command bunkers.
The hypersonic missiles will be “exquisite munitions,” Rafferty told me, “very expensive but incredibly capable systems that fly very, very fast, are highly maneuverable, and impact with incredible kinetic energy (on) strategic infrastructure.”
A single hardened bunker might oversee dozens of radars, missile launchers, and command posts, some static but others mounted on trucks or tracked vehicles. With modern networking technology, those systems can keep fighting when the big fixed sites are gone, albeit less efficiently. You don’t need, and can’t afford, enough exquisite munitions to kill all of them.
That’s why the Strategic Long-Range Cannon will fire larger numbers of more affordable projectiles. As the name says, it’ll launch missiles from a cannon barrel – probably a new design, not the standard 155 mm howitzer – which allows a smaller and cheaper rocket motor on the projectile itself. It’s still a supersonic, maneuverable precision weapon that has to survive an explosive launch with its electronics intact, but it’s not as hard as hypersonics.
“It’s evolutionary in some ways,” Rafferty told me. “We have rocket-assisted projectiles right now that are cannon-launched. “So it’s not that big a leap to imagine you could do that at longer ranges with a larger cannon.” How much larger? It won’t be huge like John Bull’s infamous supergun, he said, but something that can fit on a road-mobile vehicle, both to deploy and to take cover from enemy fire.
Why does the Army need these weapons in the first place? After all, Navy Tomahawks fired from cruisers, destroyers, and submarines have been striking targets a thousand miles away for decades. The Air Force has a variety of missiles launched from planes. And both services are developing more.
“It’s not just another arrow in the quiver,” Rafferty told me. “It’s a special arrow in the quiver that can overcome some of our competitors’ most sophisticated defenses.”
The Air Force and Navy are also developing new weapons of their own to counter those sophisticated defenses, with a rapidly increasing investment in hypersonics. It’s not essential for the Army to do so too.
There’s another advantage, however, that is inherent to ground forces as opposed to airplanes and surface ships: the ability to hide.
The US learned this the hard way in 1991, when it struggled to hunt down SCUD launchers in the flat Iraqi desert. In settled areas, ground vehicles can hide from detection and destruction underground in garages or tunnels.
Even stealth aircraft, by contrast, show up on certain kinds of radar, while the surface of the sea offers no cover. There are always submarines, the ultimate stealth platform, but these cost billions, can’t reload their launchers without returning to port, and can be hunted down by sonar. Ground-based weapons, even expensive ones, can go on trucks and drive into highway tunnels free. They’re no substitute for subs, but they might not be a bad Plan B.
“It creates a dilemma for the enemy,” Rafferty told me, “another dimension to the problem.”