The U.S. Army is continuing its efforts to rebuild its stockpiles of ammunition and equipment for use against a large, well equipped force in a war. These stockpiles are also referred to as the “War Reserve” (large quantities of munitions and spares stockpiled to keep the troops supplied during the initial month or so of a war). These stockpiles must contain the most useful munitions and other supplies and be positioned so they can be moved to the combat zone as quickly, and surely as possible. Without adequate logistics (the right supplies delivered in time) wars or at least battles, are often lost early and often.
The nature of these war reserves has changed a lot since the 1990s. For one thing, the widespread use of GPS/INS guided shells and rockets since the late 1990s has led to most artillery being retired. One guided shell or rocket can do the work of dozens of unguided projectiles. The validity of this was proven time and again while fighting Islamic terrorists since 2001. This included 2016-18 battles against ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) where the Islamic terrorists were defending urban areas the same way a conventional force would, but smart shells and rockets were used effectively and frequently rather than the older tactic of using far more unguided shells and rockets. In both cases, the urban areas are destroyed but with guided projectiles, it is done with more precision and that enables the friendly ground forces to advance more rapidly and with fewer casualties than in the past. Because of the battles with ISIL in Iraq and Syria, the effectiveness of fewer guided projectiles replacing many more unguided ones was proven and ammunition stockpiles could be adjusted accordingly.
Over the last few years, army orders for 155mm artillery shells are up from 16,573 (for 2018) to 148,287 for 2019. But for 2020 the emphasis switched to GPS guided 227mm rockets (GMLRS) and upgrades for the longer range 600mm ATACMS guided rocket. For 2020 the army has ordered 10,193 GMLRS rockets versus 8,101 in 2019 and 6,936 in 2018. In that time the Army discovered that it was easier to use the longer range (70 kilometers or more) GMLRS than trying to develop longer range artillery. The need here was to match longer range artillery developed and put in service by Russia and China. Even with longer barrels and rocket assisted shells artillery could not reach as far as GMLRS. Moreover, jamming the GPS signal is a less effective enemy option what with the much improved microchip based INS (Inertial Guidance System) long used as a less accurate backup in weapons using GPS for projectile guidance. The new INS is nearly as accurate as GPS and if you have to be sure-fire two or three GMLRS at the same target. That works, especially since INS cannot be jammed.
There is still a need for guided and unguided 155mm artillery shells. To provide choice the army has been ordering many more of the PGK (Projectile Guidance Kit) 155mm fuze. The PGK fuze turns an unguided 155mm shell into a GPS/INS guided one. These were found to be exceptionally useful in Syria and Iraq and in mid-2017 the U.S. Army ordered another 5,600 PGK fuzes and now wants to build a large stockpile. The army still uses unguided artillery shells for situations that don’t require precise accuracy for each shell but the PGK provides options that can be implemented quickly to turn any “dumb” shell into a smart one.
With all these guided projectiles being used there is a greater need to know precisely where friendly forces are at all times. Thus orders for the latest version of Blue Force Tracker (BFT, that lets commander see where all their troops are in real time) are up from 16,552 in 2018 to 26,355 in 2019. This JBCP (Joint Battle Command Platform) gear that BFT is part of, began arriving in 2015 and is essential in large scale combat. The 2019-20 budgets accelerate purchases of numerous items that have to be stockpiled to sustain a major war, even a short one. Although fighting in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan has involved few American troops it has seen enough action, and use of artillery in support of Iraqi, Syrian and Afghan forces, to deplete stockpiles and indicate which items would be needed in another major war.
Before 2008, as the war began to wind down in Iraq, there were warning that stockpiles and war reserves were being allowed to shrink to dangerously low levels. In early 2016 American military leaders went public about how their complaints about smart bomb and missile shortages being ignored. In 2015 over 25,000 smart bombs and missiles were used by American (mostly) and allied (NATO and local Arabs) warplanes operating over Iraq and Syria. Nearly all weapons were supplied by American firms but the American politicians and military leaders couldn’t agree on how to get the money to replace bombs being taken from the war reserve stocks.
This is not a new problem. It was a major and widespread problem in 2011 when NATO warplanes provided air support for Libyan rebels. In the aftermath of the 2011 campaign NATO countries noted the importance of smart bombs and guided missiles, and the tendency of European nations to maintain meager stocks of these (and many other) munitions and spare parts for the aircraft that deliver them. NATO nations did not start acquiring smart bombs until after the Cold War ended, about the same time their procurement budgets were cut sharply. European defense spending continues to shrink, and war reserve stocks are still not a high priority. In Europe, the attitude seemed to be that the Americans would be able to supply smart bombs in a crisis. For a long time that was the case, but with the Americans now running down their own war reserves and deadlocked over what to do about that (which is currently “not much”), American allies are getting anxious.
In 2011 the situation was made worse by the fact that the NATO air forces delivering most of the bombs in Libya had already used many of them in Afghanistan over the previous few years. The now chastised NATO air forces are still trying to deal that the 2011 mess and now they find that their safety net (dependable emergency deliveries from American war reserves) is rapidly disappearing or no longer as available as in the past.
All this was yet another reminder that cutting corners in maintaining war reserve stocks was a false economy. But the smart bombs and missiles are expensive. About 30 percent of the cost of the NATO Libya operation was for these high-tech weapons, with the rest of the expense being operational costs (fuel, spare parts, and personnel expenses). But if you don’t have the smart bombs to deliver there is no action, except for the imaginative stories conjured by many political and military leaders to shift the blame onto someone else.
When the smart bomb stockpile shortage got some attention it became obvious that the new army guided, and unguided, artillery ammunition stockpiles needed attention as well and modernization efforts like JBCP. Army procurement for 2019 is up 18 percent over the previous year and that is expected to go on for a few years like this.