Artillery: Excalibur Freeze Out
August 10, 2006: Excalibur has a case of frostbite. The U.S. Army, under the constant prodding of artillery officers in Iraq and Afghanistan, are hustling to get the Excalibur "smart shell" ready for deployment. The troops want the 155mm, hundred pound, GPS guided shell as soon as possible, even if all the kinks are not worked out. The first Excaliburs, that will reach U.S. and Canadian troops this Fall, will have a range of 23 kilometers, and reliability of only about 75 percent.
But these shells, it was discovered last month, during the final rounds of testing, have a problem with extreme cold. While shells stored in high heat, and fired while quite toasty, performed fine, those chilled down to 40 degrees below zero did not. It seems that the battery produced insufficient power, when that cold, to operate the shell's guidance system effectively. While this would not be a problem in Iraq, it could be a problem in parts of Afghanistan, where the Winters are pretty brutal. Troops in the combat zone, when they heard of this problem, promised to keep the shells warm, but just get the damn things delivered ASAP.
The Excalibur testing will continue after the Fall shipments. This is so that, sometime in 2008, a new version of Excalibur will be ready, one with a range of over 35 kilometers (and eventually up to 60 kilometers). These versions will have reliability of over 90 percent.
The Excalibur shell is expected to revolutionize the use of cannon artillery. In the past, the army had lots of artillery fire power, but it wasn't very accurate. Infantry had to back off hundreds of meters before the bombers or guns could let loose on the enemy. If you didn't back off, you risked friendly fire casualties. This is much less of a problem with GPS guided munitions. The "dumb" shells can, at best, land with 75 meters of the aim point. Excalibur can hit within 15 meters, on the first shot, at any range. Infantry can use that kind of accuracy to stay close to the enemy, and quickly rush them after a smart bomb, or shell, has landed. Using Excalibur will also mean much less ammo will be needed, and there will be less wear and tear on the guns, and their crews. While the first Excalibur shells going to the troops cost about $80,000 each, that price is expected to come way down, real fast. In five or ten years, the price of a smart shell will be under $5,000. That's still over ten times what a dumb shell costs, but the many advantages of smart shells make the price difference worthwhile.