Artillery: Cheaper Is Worse

November 20, 2007: America's NATO allies are discovering, the hard way, that unguided artillery shells are not only old-fashioned, but counterproductive in places like Afghanistan. The Taliban tend to use civilians as human shields, and that means you have to be precise when you go after the bad guys with artillery. A typical situation has Taliban gunmen holding out in one building of a walled compound or village. In nearby buildings, there are women and children. While killing the Taliban is good, killing the civilians can be worse. Smart bombs should be able to fix this, except that sometimes the smallest smart bomb, the 500 pounder, has too much bang (280 pounds of explosives). A 155mm artillery shell should do the trick (only 20 pounds of explosives each), but at long range (20 kilometers or more), some of these shells will hit the civilians. This is where the new U.S. GPS guided Excalibur shell [PHOTO] comes in handy. Unguided shells land anywhere within a 200 meter (or larger) circle. The GPS guided Excalibur shell falls within a ten meter circle (the middle of that circle being the "aim point".) The Excalibur just entered service a year ago, and the troops find it invaluable for hitting just what you want to hit.

For most NATO nations, the drawback is cost. A "dumb" 155mm shell costs under a thousand dollars, while one Excalibur costs $50,000. But when you take into account the civilian lives saved (and good will retained), it's a different story. Moreover, friendly troops can be closer to the target when Excalibur is used, meaning your infantry can get into the shelled target quicker, before any surviving enemy can get ready to shoot back. The Excalibur shell is worth it in other ways. Ten 155mm shells (of any type, with their propellant and packaging) weigh about a ton. Ammo supply has always been a major problem with artillery, and Excalibur is the solution. With Excalibur, fewer 155mm shells have to be shipped thousands of miles, and looked after until they are used.

Excalibur was developed in cooperation with Swedish engineers, and the shell is to be used by the Swedish Army. Australia has adopted Excalibur as well. Now, as a result of combat experience in Afghanistan, more NATO nations are realizing that Excalibur isn't so expensive after all.

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