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Video Above: Army Futures Command Breaks Through with Robotics, AI Enabled War

By Kris Osborn - President & Editor-In-Chief, Warrior Maven

If a mechanized armored unit were approaching uneven terrain in a move-to-contact with the enemy, yet large amounts of weaponry and enemy force concentrations were obscured from view beyond a ridge, how could the advancing forces attack? Without a linear approach or line-of-sight target trajectory, a heavily armed armored unit might need a drone to receive intelligence about enemy forces on the other side of a hill. 

Should the armored column learn of the location of the enemy forces on the other side of the hill, they may have few attack options apart from calling for a drone strike or firing a mortar or artillery with an upward trajectory to descend upon the enemy.

Essentially, options in this kind of scenario might be limited. Just how would an artillery weapon, for instance, attack an enemy vehicle on the other side of a mountain or beneath a bridge? There are few options without entering a direct line of enemy fire, and even then there may not be an opportunity to pinpoint the obscured or hidden target.

These circumstances, likely quite familiar throughout the history of ground war, have presented ground war commanders with particular tactical challenges. This often encountered predicament is exactly why the Army has partnered with Excalibur-maker Raytheon to engineer the new “shaped trajectory” 155mm precision-guided artillery round." 

Shaped Trajectory 155mm Precision-Guided Artillery Round

Some of the technical specifics are of course not available for security reasons, yet the round is engineered with an advanced ability to change course in flight and maneuver itself into position to kill an otherwise unreachable target.

“We want to get to the point where we have target-seeking munitions, Counterintuitively it lowers the cost per kill as those are expensive munitions. But, when you have the confidence that it's going to seek and destroy the target that you're shooting at, it certainly lowers the number of munitions you have to shoot at it,” Maj. Gen. John Rafferty, Director, Long Range Precision Fires Cross Functional Team, Army Futures Command, told Warrior in an interview.

The U.S. Marine Corps prepare an Excalibur 155 mm projectile round on Fire Base Bell, Iraq

The U.S. Marine Corps prepare an Excalibur 155 mm projectile round on Fire Base Bell, Iraq

The “shaped trajectory” is a massive development, as it enables targeting and attack in an unprecedented fashion, as breakthrough guidance technology can enable a 155mm round to detect an obscured target and maneuver into position to destroy it. Instead of being limited or confined to a standard guided-round trajectory, which descends in direct and known fashion, the “shaped trajectory” round can be pre-programmed by an observer to perform a “high-G-U-turn,” altering its course to destroy obscured or hidden targets, developers explain.

“The projectile itself has fins and canards that enable it to steer,” Rafferty said.

Therefore, should a high altitude drone beyond the range of enemy ground fire use high-fidelity cameras to find a hidden target on the other side of a ridge, a datalink can send the real time video to maneuvering, ground-based command and control with mechanized units in position to fire a “shaped trajectory” course correcting round and destroy the target. This not only greatly shortens the sensor-to-shooter time but greatly improves survivability by enabling stand-off range precision attack beyond-line-of-sight.

The Army is already using some of its “shaped trajectory” Excalibur rounds as part of an ongoing process to explore and further develop a family of advanced 155mm artillery rounds designed to extend range, change course in flight to hit hidden targets, attack moving targets and tailor blast effects to destroy enemy armor.

The “shaped trajectory” round, which uses advanced technology to adjust course in flight to hit obscured or otherwise unreachable targets, is a key part of a family of Excalibur artillery rounds engineered by Raytheon and Army developers. Beginning with the advent of GPS-guided Excalibur artillery in 2007, weapons developers have been working on a wide sphere of new variations. The round has progressed much over the years, beginning with the initial Ia-1 round from 2007 able to fire 20km, a subsequent 40km-range Ia-2 round and an advanced Ib round built with additional guidance and navigation technology to operate in a GPS-contested environment.

The “shaped trajectory” is part of a growing family of high-tech Excalibur rounds being developed by Raytheon and the military services. For instance, one such application includes the laser-guided Excalibur “S” round, able to follow a laser spot onto a moving target. There is also a “shaped charge” round which includes state-of-the-art anti-armor explosives. 

U.S. Army Infantry Soldiers fire an FGM-148 Javelin during a combined arms live fire exercise in Jordan, Aug. 27, 2019.

U.S. Army Infantry Soldiers fire an FGM-148 Javelin during a combined arms live fire exercise in Jordan, Aug. 27, 2019.

The new weapon represents an exponential leap beyond existing state-of-the-art anti-tank weapons such as the TOW and Javelin missiles; the Javelin reaches ranges up to 2.5 miles and the TOW missile can hit targets out to 4,500 meters. The Excalibur “shaped charge” brings an entirely new anti-tank weapon, able to reach as far as 30km (18.64 miles). Senior Army weapons developers explain that extending ground-war attack ranges changes some of the traditional elements of Combined Arms Maneuver strategy.

Excalibur is also being fired from the Army’s emerging Extended Range Cannon Artillery (ERCA) weapons program and is the only projectile to strike a target precisely at more than 65km, as demonstrated in a March 6, 2020 test. The ERCA gun uses a longer, 58-caliber cannon to fire 155m rounds as far as 70km. Until ERCA, existing 155m Excalibur were fired from 39-caliber tubes on the US Army’s mobile M777 towed howitzer or the M109A7 Palladin self-propelled howitzer or the 52 caliber tubes on the Army’s international partners’ guns such as Sweden’s Archer, and The Netherlands’ PzH2000.

EXCALIBUR PRECISION 155 MM PROJECTILES

EXCALIBUR PRECISION 155 MM PROJECTILES

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Hardened GPS-targeting navigation, inertial measurement units, programmable fuses and course-correcting guidance technology are all aspects of a greater Army effort to introduce new innovations into the realm of 155mm artillery.

Historically, 155mm artillery rounds were conceived of purely as an area-weapon, an imprecise way of blanketing an area with suppressive fire enabling troops to maneuver while under enemy fire. In recent years, this has changed dramatically to the point where not only can 155mm rounds be precision-guided to within one-meter of a specific target 30km away, but the guidance and explosive characteristics can also be tailored to give attacking commanders more options.

In 2007 during Operation Iraqi Freedom, the Army debuted what was a paradigm-changing development at the time, the advent of GPS-guided artillery. A newly engineered round called Excalibur, used GPS and Inertial Measurement Unit technology to pinpoint enemy targets in a way that offered new tactical options to commanders. 

Nearly 15 years after the Gulf War which introduced the world to GPS-guided air munitions, Excalibur brought the technology to land warfare. This took place at an auspicious time, given that the ground counterinsurgency war in Iraq increasingly required levels of precision to find and strike small groups of terrorists, vehicles or specific targets in otherwise populated areas. Precision-guided land artillery reduced collateral damage, saved lives and enabled attacking units to operate with fewer logistical constraints as they could maneuver with less ammunition.=

Now the Army is bringing artillery into yet another dimension by doubling the range of precision artillery to 70km through its Extended Range Cannon Artillery program. ERCA, as its called, can fire precision rounds much father, using greater speed and thrust from a longer cannon barrel. In development for several years, the ERCA program not only improves strike range but also allows for a number of additional upgrades to the artillery itself to enhance performance and provide commanders with new options for explosive characteristics and guidance technology to improve the lethality of the round.

“With some software updates, we can adjust the flight trajectory, so that we can get increased range? And the answer has been yes, we've been able to do that and extend the range of the currently fielded Excalibur. We're gonna get that out to 70 kilometers, and then that's helping us with an enhanced lethality version of the Excalibur called Excalibur hit-to-kill. We will have a target seeking sensor and get out to extended ranges. Using maneuverability to course-correct and steer the target to destroy it,” Maj. Gen. John Rafferty, Director, Long Range Precision Fires Cross Functional Team, Army Futures Command, told Warrior in an interview.

The sphere of enhancements to the round are quite comprehensive as programmable fuses can make adjustments so that rounds can explode in a particular fashion and software upgrades can add new guidance technologies. A “shaped round” can tailor a 155mm round for maximum penetration and explosive effect, whereas a “shaped trajectory” can adjust course in flight to hit an enemy vehicle on the other side of a mountain or under a bridge. The extended range not only enabled attack from further stand-off ranges but can also help leverage course-correcting flight technology.

“What else can be done with this very capable projectile? Let's see if we can shoot it farther, and then let's see what we can do with the trajectory to get the most range out of it so it can withstand greater chamber pressure and higher G- loads for increased muzzle velocity. The projectile itself has fins and canards that enable it to steer,” Rafferty said.

Hitting enemy air defenses from stand-off ranges outside the sphere of enemy fire, targeting troop formations and mechanized units prior to a “move to contact,” and sending precision guided, course correcting rounds more than twice the distance of traditional weapons, are all key attributes related to ERCA.

U.S. Army Pvt. Darrell Futrell lifts a 155mm round weighing about 100 pounds at Camp Atterbury Joint Maneuver Training Center in central Indiana. Engineers at Picatinny Arsenal are seeking to potentially extend the range of cannon artillery with new manufacturing methods that improve artillery shells, allowing them to withstand higher launch velocities and temperatures.

U.S. Army Pvt. Darrell Futrell lifts a 155mm round weighing about 100 pounds at Camp Atterbury Joint Maneuver Training Center in central Indiana. Engineers at Picatinny Arsenal are seeking to potentially extend the range of cannon artillery with new manufacturing methods that improve artillery shells, allowing them to withstand higher launch velocities and temperatures.

An ability to double the attack range of traditional 155mm artillery, and add breakthrough levels of precision and guidance technology is the operational concept behind the ERCA program, which is now being prepared for a year-long operational assessment.

“We've got six prototypes. Right now, we'll have 18 ready by the end of next fiscal year for delivery to a battalion at Fort Bliss, Texas, where we'll go into a one year operational assessment,” Maj. Gen. John Rafferty, Directory, Long Range Precision Fires Cross Functional Team, Army Futures Command, told Warrior in an interview.

For decades now, 155mm artillery has operated at a maximum range of roughly 30km and ERCA is now redefining tactical paradigms for combined arms attack by engineering a cannon able to fire rounds farther than 70km.

Rafferty explained some of the engineering and innovative work that went into architecting a breakthrough weapon of this kind.

“We’re putting a new turret with an upgraded armament system on that chassis. We pull out the 39-caliber gun and put in a 58-caliber gun. That basically takes a gun tube that is 20-feet long and changes it to 30-feet long,” Rafferty said.

The fundamental innovation, Rafferty explained, involves replacing the breech with a sliding block breech which is more like a tank breech.

“It’s a big, fixed, very robust metal brace which is a lot more like a tank breach. It seals the back end of the cannon in the chamber with a sliding lock breach. That larger chamber gives us the ability to develop a supercharged propellant. The different propellant generates much more chamber pressure and pushes the projectiles out with much greater velocity. That’s how we can achieve longer ranges,” Rafferty explained.

The development is quite significant tactically given the current great power threat circumstance. The US Army was well ahead of the world with its 2007 debut of land-fired GPS-guided precision artillery, however guided rounds now exist in many countries around the world, some of which could be adversaries. An ability to outrange enemy firepower, with the prospect of both precision and course-correcting guidance technology, changes the tactical landscape for ground war commanders.

“The howitzers are being produced by the Army organic industrial base. This is a really big Army success story here that we're building on with the M109. That's the upgraded chassis that's being produced right up the road here from Fort Sill and Elgin by big systems,” Rafferty said. 

Kris Osborn is the President of Warrior Maven - Center for Military Modernization and the Defense Editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

Kris Osborn, Warrior Maven President

Kris Osborn, Warrior Maven President - Center for Military Modernization