Artillery: The Need for Less Speed


January22, 2007: Smart artillery shells are just around the corner, and always have been. Guidance systems for artillery shells have always been tricky. While radar sets were successfully fitted into shells over sixty years ago, and timers even earlier than that, more complex systems have proved problematic. The 155mm Copperhead, Excalibur and Krasnopol (the Russian Copperhead) all give evidence of that. While 27,853 Copperhead shells were produced, fewer than a hundred were used in combat. Some 12,000 have been used in training exercises. Australia bought a few hundred rounds back in the 1980s. The rest sit in storage, unused and unwanted.

The Copperhead problem is that, as a laser guided shell, you have to have someone up front aiming the right type of laser at the target, in order for the shell to home in on it. That's a hassle the troops have not been willing to put up with. In the American army there are plenty of other precision weapons available, so the $40,000 (each) Copperhead shells languish, twenty years after they were developed. Krasnopol was bought by the Indian army, for use against bunkers high up in the mountains. There were no other precision weapons available for this. But it turned out that the Russians had not tested Krasnopol in such high, and cold, conditions, and most of the shells failed. Meanwhile the American replacement for Copperhead, Excalibur, which uses GPS guidance, has suffered one delay after another in the last two years, delaying its use by combat troops.

Copperhead has had a 96 percent success rate, and if that level of performance can be achieved with Excalibur, that GPS guided round will be popular with the troops. But GPS guidance is more complicated than laser seeking (where a sensor detects the right frequency of laser light). There have been a lot of problems with maintaining a steady flow of data from GPS satellites to the fast moving shell. When used, however, Excalibur puts no burden on the troops. Nothing beats simplicity. Just enter the GPS coordinates in the shell, fire and forget.

The navy is even more concerned about smart shells that can work with their new rail guns. These weapons use electricity to propel projectiles at even higher speeds, submitting the guidance system components to even higher g stresses. Within the artillery community, there is concern among the users about how quickly the stress problems will be solved. The reluctance to use Copperhead in the field, and nervousness about Excalibur, is just an expression of this. Artillerymen are part geek, and always have been. Even the enlisted gunners get into the technical end of things, which is why they are much more confident about the much slower, and less stressful GPS guided GMLRS rocket. This is case where there's a need for a lot less speed. Perhaps the ultimate solution is a howitzer/RAP (Rocket Assisted Projectile) type shell. Who knows? Right everyone is still looking.


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