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Artillery: Excalibur Lost in Neverwhere

December 13, 2006: The U.S. Army is on schedule to get its 155mm Excalibur "smart shell," into service a year late, after paying the manufacturer, Raytheon, $22 million to get the shell to the troops a year early. Currently, it looks like a dozen or so Excalibur shells will arrive in Iraq next February for a final field test. If there are no glitches, larger quantities will reach the troops by April, 2007. 

The army has been hustling to get the Excalibur to the troops (who are eager to receive it), but testing keeps revealing more bugs in the system. This can be a problem with Excalibur, because the justification for the $50,000 shell is its ability to hit a target in situations where friendly troops, or civilians,  are very close by. Earlier this year, there were problems with some shells not getting the GPS signal. If the Excalibur shell does not get the GPS signal, you have to make sure it's unguided trajectory will take it where there are no friendly troops or civilians. Having to do this every time you use Excalibur can be complicated, time consuming, and often not possible. These problems were solved, but then some temperature related problems were encountered. They were fixed, but still more testing must be conducted. 

Getting "smart shells" to work effectively is nothing new. Back in the 1980s, the 155mm Copperhead round was developed, at great expense, to take out tanks with one shot. The Copperhead was laser guided. That is, it homed in on laser light that a forward observer was creating by pointing a laser at the target. It was the same technique used with laser guided bombs. But this was expensive technology. Each of the 3,000 Copperhead shells eventually built, cost several hundred thousands dollars (the price varied, up to half a million bucks, depending on who was doing the calculating). While a "dumb" artillery shell will land with 75 meters of the aiming point, the Copperhead would land within a meter or two. But so what? It turned out there were many easier, and cheaper, ways to destroy enemy tanks. This was demonstrated during the 1991 Gulf War, when a few Copperhead shells were used, successfully, but to reactions of, "whatever."

Russia developed its own version of Copperhead, Krasnopol, and sold some to India. During a 1999 war with Pakistan, high in the Himalayan mountains, Krasnopol proved very useful in taking out enemy bunkers, without causing avalanches or destroying the few pathways up the steep hills. The Indians paid about $40,000 for each Krasnopol shell (two thirds what the Copperhead was supposed to cost originally), and found it a good investment. This encouraged the American developers of the next generation smart shell, Excalibur. But GPS guided shells proved to be a tough technology to perfect, and we'll have to wait until 2007 to see if the effort was worth it.

In Iraq, the troops are already using the 227mm MLRS GPS guided rocket. With a range of 70 kilometers, and a 200 pound explosive warhead, a few GMLRS (G for "Guided") vehicles (each carrying eight rockets), can cover a huge area with very accurate fire. The GMLRS has been a great success, and the army is hustling to get enough rockets built to meet demand.


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EW3       12/13/2006 5:42:39 PM
There are a large number of fundamental problems with a guided artillery round.
At the same time there are so many variations that could be done with a GMLRS. 
For example make a round with a 100/50lb warhead, which should add to range and
reduce colateral damage.  Going in the other direction, make rounds with a 300/400lb
warhead with a shorter range. Another possibility is to add a recon warhead which would
be like a LAMs with an MLRS booster, launced by a GMLRS launcher.  That would
let the GMLRS provide it's own targetting. 
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HIPAR    It works   1/2/2007 7:20:38 PM
Yes, there are complex problems associated with GPS guided projectiles.  Back in the 90's such things seemed highly unlikely. The problems have been solved. I know an analyst modeling the effectiveness of Excaliber who contends that everyone concerned with the project is very pleased with weapon.  They were even surprised when it exceeded its accuracy goals during actual live firing.  Evidently, it still delivers a useful payload, even after airframe and guidance components have claimed their space, and firing range is extended because of its improved glide ratio.

Excaliber provides the field artillery a means to defeat a specific high interest point target.  Artillery was previously considered as only an area fire weapons system.  Logistically, these projectiles should be easier to manage than larger rockets so they will be a weapon of choice for smaller targets when a guided rocket is overkill.

---  CHAS

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french stratege       1/2/2007 7:55:08 PM
Maybe SYSOP could have spoken about french shells:
SMART BONUS shell with 2 top antitank  attack IR guided submunition: the 3 921th shell has been delivered this month.
SPACIDO shell which improve by four accuracy thank to a corrective system and which cost much less than a GPS guided shell
PELICAN GPS/Galileo guided AND gludder 155 mm shell with a range of 100 km
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french stratege       1/2/2007 8:00:29 PM
Glider shell - sorry
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doggtag       1/2/2007 8:09:53 PM
I say this is what artillery has been waiting for ever since it switched from a direct fire support weapon (circa US Civil War?) to an indirect support area effect/bombardment weapon.
The whole notion of massed artillery fire was to bombard an area with enough eplosives and fragments in the hopes that the targets in the area would be destroyed, or at least have their warfighting ability severely disabled, in the process.
Take some of the more known artillery barrages in history (WW1-today) and decide for yourself if the advent of an effective PGM would reduce the en masse fire barrage.
If precision guided munitions were available to pinpoint the tanks and fighting positions and bunkers we've been lobbing rounds at for the past century, would artillery be viewed as the generally inaccurate, area saturation weapon that it is now?
Would we have needed massed barrages for anything other than psychological effect (and the ocassional destruction of a military encampment, vehicle part, or small city?)
Would the long range Paris Gun of WW1 been more than a nuisance weapon if it could've guaranteed its shells would land within 25m of a specific target, rather than just "somewhere in the vicinity of Paris"?
As far as I see it, on the advent of artillery PGMs (GPS, laser guided, or autonomous/inertially guided),
I say it's about time, and long overdue.
Kind of like modern surgery: why amputate a whole arm or leg when we can precisely go in with scalpel and remove a clot or other cancerous growth?
And to an extent, another plus side I see is that barrel wear should be considerably reduced, as there will no longer be the necessity to fire dozens of shells within a short amount of time to achieve the same desired effect: the destruction of, almost always, a specific point target (or group of targets).
It becomes essentially important today when any given military's key adversaries includes the media, who don't hesitate to report on civilian casualties and excessive collateral damage (most often viewed as unnecessary) that would be brought about by area barrages (and carpet bombing, if we're going to mention precision guided bombs and missiles as part of the solution also).
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HIPAR       1/2/2007 9:11:20 PM
Do not think in terms of 40:1 glide ratios for Excaliber but the airfoils do indeed provide some extra lift.  That effect was verified back in the latter 90's by aero modeling.

I need to see that French projo take out a point target at 100 km to be a believer.  I guess it employs an inertial system if the designers were not allowed to rely upon GPS. 

I don't believe precision projectiles will totally redefine the role of the field artillery.  It will retain its area firing role. A battery barrage of fires using ballistic rounds  remains the most cost effective tactic for neutralizing soft area targets.  The inherent dispersion of precision actually helps with area targets.  In that role, the field artillery has inflicted the majority of battlefield casualties during force on force engagements.

---  CHAS

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