October 5, 2009:
The U.S. Marines, like the U.S. Army, has been putting their artillery units through intensive training, so that they can get back to using their 155mm howitzers again. For some veteran artillerymen, they are firing their 155mm guns for the first time in four or five years, now that they are being sent to Afghanistan instead of Iraq. The marines are putting over 4,000 artillerymen through the training, and sending several of their 43 firing batteries (each with six M777 155mm towed artillery pieces) to Afghanistan.
In 2004, when the counter-terrorism campaign began in Iraq, it was quickly realized that artillery units were not needed much. Smart bombs were far more accurate and effective. There was a GPS guided artillery shell in the works (Excalibur) but it did not show up until 2007. So in the meantime, most army and marine artillery units were temporarily converted to light infantry, and performed security and counter-terrorism tasks. At the same time, many Cold War era artillery units back in the United States were disbanded, made obsolete with the arrival of GPS guided shells and MLRS rockets.
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. So the army and marine artillery battalions attached to combat brigades are again training on their howitzers, and preparing to operate as artillerymen again, in Afghanistan.
Four years ago, Canada brought six M777 155mm towed artillery pieces to Afghanistan when they realized that the older 105mm guns were not up to the task. The older 105mm howitzers lacked the accuracy and firepower needed. The 105mm shells weighed 33 pounds, versus the 90 pound 155mm ones. The M777s were needed in a hurry, so Canada got them from the U.S. Marine Corps, which has used the weapon for nearly a decade. Canada also got the new GPS guided 155mm Excalibur shell two years ago. Excalibur makes 155mm shells as accurate as smart bombs, and is considered necessary when artillery is used in proximity to civilians. Excalibur also reduces the number of shells used. The Excalibur also doubles the M777 range, to 40 kilometers, without losing any accuracy.
The M777 is a British design and, at four tons, is the lightest 155mm towed howitzer ever fielded. A lightweight 105mm howitzer weighs about two tons. M777 Fire control is handled by computerized system that allows faster response time and more accurate shooting. The Canadians have found the M777 accurate and reliable. In addition to hitting enemy troops, the Canadians have also found the M777 an effective negotiating tool. When discussing relationships with local tribal leaders, Canadian commanders have sometimes had an M777 put a shell in a nearby field or hill side, on command, to demonstrate what the Canadians have at their disposal. Afghans understand that sort of thing.