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Artillery: Cannot Get Enough Excalibur
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August 28, 2008: The U.S. Army has ordered another thousand Excalibur, 155mm, GPS guided artillery shells, at a cost of about $85,000 each. Australia ordered 250 of the shells earlier this year. American and Canadian troops have begun using the Excalibur shell in Afghanistan earlier this year. A year ago, American troops began using Excalibur in Iraq.

This was timely, because Islamic warriors tend to use civilians as human shields, and that means you have to be precise when you go after the bad guys. The Excalibur shell enabled the artillery to take care of these chores. A typical situation has enemy gunmen holding out in one building of a walled compound or village. In nearby buildings, there are women and children. While killing the enemy is good, killing the civilians can be a very bad thing. Smart bombs should be able to fix this, except that sometimes one of the smaller smart bombs, 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. That's because at that range, an unguided 155mm shell can land up to 100-200 meters from where you aimed it. This is where Excalibur comes in handy. The GPS guided Excalibur shell falls within a ten meter circle (the middle of that circle being the "aim point") no matter what the range. 

After a year of use in Iraq, the troops find Excalibur invaluable for hitting just what you want to hit, and with a minimal amount of bang. Excalibur, being an artillery (which is controlled by the army) weapon, is easier to call in than a smart bomb (air force) attack. U.S. Army attack helicopters also have their Hellfire missiles, which provide a bit less bang than the Excalibur shell (and cost about the same). But while weather (especially sand storms) can interfere with helicopter operations, Excalibur is always ready to fire.

For most nations, the big drawback with Excalibur is cost. A "dumb" 155mm shell costs  $300 or less, 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. One Excalibur shell can take out a target that would require 10-20 unguided shells.

 Excalibur was developed in the United States, in cooperation with Swedish engineers, The Excalibur was originally supposed to cost under $50,000 each, and with more being produced, the per-shell price may eventually fall to the planned price. Currently, 150 Excaliburs are being produced each month, and the army wants to double that. Developing electronics and control systems that fit inside a 155mm diameter shell, and survive being fired out of a cannon, proved more difficult than expected. That's why a GPS guided smart bomb only costs about $30,000, while the first hundred or so Excaliburs cost more than twice as much.

Developing smart artillery shells is risky. The U.S. Navy recently cancelled a project to develop a similar 127mm shell, and is now looking into adopting the Excalibur technology for a GPS guided 127mm shell that works. Smart shells are a nice idea, but getting from here to there is a risky and expensive process.

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flyingarty    Shells   8/28/2008 6:47:16 AM
  Now if only they had a modern cannon to fire them...Flyingarty
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B.Smitty       8/28/2008 8:38:02 AM
The M777 isn't modern?
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WarNerd       8/28/2008 9:44:31 AM
Maybe the Navy should look at reviving the 155mm vertically loading naval gun turret and using the same rounds as the Army instead of trying to build a 127mm version of the Excalibur.  It would be a lot less risky.
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arodrig6       9/2/2008 12:14:26 PM

Maybe the Navy should look at reviving the 155mm vertically loading naval gun turret and using the same rounds as the Army instead of trying to build a 127mm version of the Excalibur.  It would be a lot less risky.
Perhaps less risky, but more costly. I am guessing the Navy already has a number of 127mm guns. Developing a new shell for existing guns is probably much cheaper than developing an entire new gun system, building a bunch of them, and then retrofitting them on to existing ships.
Your thoughts?

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doggtag       9/2/2008 1:03:21 PM

Maybe the Navy should look at reviving the 155mm vertically loading naval gun turret and using the same rounds as the Army instead of trying to build a 127mm version of the Excalibur.  It would be a lot less risky.

Perhaps less risky, but more costly. I am guessing the Navy already has a number of 127mm guns. Developing a new shell for existing guns is probably much cheaper than developing an entire new gun system, building a bunch of them, and then retrofitting them on to existing ships.


Your thoughts?

If it's the vertical 155mm gun , why again does it need some kind of turret?
If it's fully vertical as in 90° of the ship's horizontal axis, why do we need some sort of traversing mechanism to slew it in azimuth, when the guided shells should more than sufficiently compensate?
Rules of physics though have dictated thru a century plus of high performance artillery that firing directly vertically doesn't equate to achieving the greatest ranges...
Why wouldn't such an installation be little more than a VLS-looking cell that has an extension mechanism that raises the barrel clear enough of the deck (akin to a sub's periscope) so as not to damage anything with the muzzle blast radius?
Turret wouldn't be the proper term, not even barbette, as the gun itself wouldn't need elaborate slewing gear (traverse & elevation).
But then again, it goes back to the argument that firing at fully vertical doesn't equate to the greatest range, even if theoretically we'd think that the maximum altitude we could reach, we could then ballistically glide out of to reach the maximum range achievable.
To date, there aren't any in-service guns that reach their maximum ranges by firing in such a manner.
As for 127mm guided projectiles: why has the US repeatedly (at least 1/2 dozen times) started and written off 5" guided projectile programs, yet we've really only seen 2 in 155mm (Copperhead and Excalibur) ?
You'd think we could get it right eventually.
(are the Italians having as much difficulty with their 127mm version of Volcano?)
Would those PGK-type mechanisms be adaptable to standard "dumb" 127mm projectiles?
My other question being: was the 155mm AGS gun so totally incompatible with land-based 155mm systems that those large LRLAPs couldn't have been adapted for manual loading for towed howitzers?
It's a fair bet they'd get considerably farther than any Excaliburs, even if fired from a barrel shorter than that originally envisioned for the AGS.
Then again, cost and physical size would be the deterring factors, as the LRLAP borders into MLRS territory for its payload and range.
(don't say they'd be too heavy: ages ago, the US employed 8" guns that, for the most part, used human labor to manhandle the 200+pound shells into position... And it's not like we'd be doing an entire fire mission with them, firing off a barrage of several dozen at any one time.)
In WW2, the USN adopted a late-War 76mm automatic gun design, as being seen as the smallest caliber the technology of the day could reliably create proximity fuzes for.
60 years later (late 1990s), Bofors now has that marvelous 3P fuze that fits into its 40mm L70 ammunition.
The tube-fired PGMs of today, and the recent PGK-type fuzes, are equivalently at the tech threshold of those WW2 proximity fuzes.
Another quarter century, and we'll have the precision we've long desired for guns of 105mm & greater, by means of quite affordable smart fuzes that can fit any shell we so desire. Technology isn't standing still, and these current hurdles and challenges will be crossed.
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flyingarty    Towed Arty   9/5/2008 12:16:09 PM
M 777-sorry I could not post for a couple days.
I am not a big fan of towed artillery. I think SPA pieces are very prefferable. The M109 has seens its day and the NLOC is not ready-yeah I am  still bitter that Rumsfled cancelled the new SPA gun, Flyingarty
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ArtyEngineer       9/5/2008 12:28:24 PM
Ok , without getting into a towed vs selfpropelled debate.  Lets just say that both are complimentary to each other.  There are missions and requirements that cannot be fulfilled by an SP systmem that a towed system can and vice versa.
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doggtag    sorry, FA, but I'm with AE on this one...   9/5/2008 3:23:15 PM
As much as I feel cheated that the US Army won't ever get Crusader and its cool robo-reloader vehicle,
towed guns have their merit.
Especially considering that no heavy lift helicopter out there could ever mover an M109 or FCS/NLOS-C into a favorable firing zone.
As surely there are many people who believe that these latest 52-cal SP guns that can shoot 50+km,
and MLRS launchers that reach 70km or better,
as surely that they believe these systems,
parked in a good area,
should be able to provide all the long range (and all-weather!) heavy firepower we could need,
sometimes there's just no getting around the ability to helo-in 155mm tubes that can shoot across an A-stan mountain top to another peak several km away, almost as soon as the firing order is given,
without the need to wait for a longer time of flight for a longer-ranged artillery piece that's a few dozen more km away.
Sure, portable mortars can cover a lot of the close range work,
but the lower firing angles and shorter times of flight that 155mm guns offer do still provide a good enough tactical advantage that justifies keeping them in service.
As I'd hate to be the one in the open on a towed gun crew in inclement weather or when enemy fire was coming in,
the clear-weather ease with which a towed gun crew can readily put brass on target in a relatively quick fashion is a nice capability to have, without the confines and complexities of a cramped turret of an SP artillery system whose real advantages are principally only in its self-deployability (but it still fires from a stationary position, not on the move like MBTs) 
and full protection for the crew from the elements and small arms fire,
often at easily 10x or more the cost of a towed gun.
Higher rates of fire offered by many newer SP systems could be a plus or minus, depending on if it eats thru your ammo supply faster and how reliable all the mechanical loading parts are.
A towed gun doesn't have half the maintenance concerns of an SP system.
To each his own, I guess.
Myself, I'm often wondering how long 155mm will be the end-all, be-all preferred caliber for such systems.
As technologies continue to evolve, the PGM capabilities we're struggling to achieve now will be achievable in smaller rounds that cost much less, and can stack many more for the same weight and volume. That means we won't necessarily then always have a requirement for 155mm, ~100-pound shells to do the job.
Could we see in the decades to come,
as we strive for more and more rapid deployability by adapting lighter-weight systems,
could there be a renewed interest in mid-range calibers that can offer comparable performance to what we see in current 155mm systems, but closer in weights and calibers to 105-127mm systems?
A few generations of technology improvement now are offering performance in the NetFires PAM missile that could almost be called phenomenal over the almost-identically-sized earlier-generation Hellfire.
Consider also that the Javelin missile is of considerably less size and weight, yet is quite superior to many of the early heavyweight ATGMs.
Future tech will allow superior performance in systems that needn't occupy as much volume or weight as current platforms, and not even to be as large in caliber, to achieve perfomance comparable to what we have today.
And certainly there will be both SP and towed (or perhaps more accurately "movement assisted") variants of these future fire support systems.
Could we even see some kind of future artillery that is principally designed around the use of rapid helo/VTOL deployment and aerial resupply and nothing else?
As to believing the M109 is pretty much an evolutionary dead end,
the latest "product improved" variants that have been revealed are pretty much completely new systems, really being of only superficial resemblance to the original M109 family.
A tired old design maybe, but still upgradeable to soldier on (we just gotta learn to get away from those range-handicapped shorty 39-cal tubes!)
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flyingarty    NLOC   9/7/2008 11:20:29 AM
Doesn't the NLOC have the cool robo auto fire feature? Also what was wrong with buying the German made SPA howitzer? (Aside from some Amercian defense firms screaming like stuck pigs)?
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