America’s ‘God of War’ is now many decades old. The US Army can’t replace it (2024)

Forget the tank, the fighter jet and even the drone. Artillery is the most important weapon on the modern battlefield, just as it was 100, 200 or even 300 years ago. It was not for nothing that Stalin dubbed artillery the ‘God of War’.

So it’s extremely problematic that the world’s leading army, the US Army, can’t manage to develop a new howitzer. Trying and failing three times in a generation to acquire new heavy artillery, the Army is stuck with upgraded versions of the same howitzers it’s been using for 61 years.

The latest artillery debacle was alarming if not terribly surprising. On March 8, Doug Bush – the Army’s top weapons-buyer – told reporters the service had ended testing of a new, farther-firing howitzer.

“We concluded the prototyping activity last fall,” Bush said of the Extended-Range Cannon Artillery, a new model of the existing M-109 tracked howitzer with a super-long barrel. “Unfortunately, [it was] not successful enough to go straight into production.”

Canceling the ERCA howitzer leaves the Army without an in-development howitzer to replace its existing 800 or so M-109s, which the service fielded starting in 1963 and has upgraded several times.

It’s a familiar if uncomfortable position for American artillery gunners to be in as they observe, from afar, thousands of Russian and Ukrainian howitzers blasting away all along the 600-mile front line of Russia’s 26-month wider war on Ukraine. It’s these howitzers that consistently inflict the heaviest casualties in that grinding war.

The Army first tried replacing its M-109s back in the 1990s. The service developed a super-heavy, highly-automated tracked howitzer it called the Crusader. The Crusader weighed 43 tons, compared to the M-109’s 28 tons, but its gun fired a standard shell 25 miles versus the M-109’s 19 miles.

The Pentagon cancelled the Crusader in 2002, citing its weight and cost. The new plan, after the Crusader’s demise, was to develop a new tracked howitzer as part of the Army’s ambitious “Future Combat Systems,” a family of lightweight robotic and semi-robotic combat vehicles connected via a high-tech radio data network.

FCS was an iconic debacle that consumed billions of development dollars, never really worked in the real world and was conceptually flawed even when it did work. The proliferation of drones and radio-jammers argued for heavier vehicles, not lighter ones – and ones that could fight while electronically isolated.

FCS collapsed in 2009, taking with it the second new howitzer design in just 10 years. Stung twice in a decade, the Army took what officials may have considered a cautious approach to designing a third new howitzer.

The service took the latest upgrade of the M-109 and, among other enhancements, replaced its 23-foot barrel with a 30-foot barrel. With its new barrel, the Extended Range Cannon Artillery could lob a shell a staggering 46 miles. An ERCA battery could potentially target enemy forces without risking return fire by enemy howitzers.

But the cautious approach didn’t work, either. In testing the new howitzer starting in 2020, the Army discovered that the longer barrel was also a more fragile barrel. The Army expects a howitzer barrel to last for thousands of rounds, so that gunners can blast away without risking an accidental explosion. The ERCA’s longer gun didn’t meet the durability standard.

So it’s back to the drawing board for an army that should be on the cutting edge of artillery technology, but instead finds itself decades behind. Even the cash-strapped Ukrainian army has newer and farther-firing European-made howitzers.

The Americans might just follow the Ukrainians’ lead, and solicit ideas – or even a direct sale – from the world’s leading howitzer-makers including Swedish firm Bofors, now part of the once-British multinational BAE Systems, and South Korean firm Hanwha. While importing artillery would be embarrassing for the planet’s richest army, it might also be the only way to re-equip American batteries.

If there’s any comfort to be found in the Army’s artillery debacle, it’s that US gunners don’t solely depend on their aging M-109s. They also operate hundreds of tracked and wheeled rocket and missile launchers.

The main wheeled launcher, the famed High-Mobility Artillery Rocket System – aka Himars – is widely considered one of the best artillery systems in the world. Speeding from firing position to firing position, a HIMARS battery can send Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System (GMLRS) precision missiles as far as 57 miles away while also dodging return rocket fire. Alternatively the box holding six GMLRS missiles can be swapped for one holding a single long-ranging Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) weapon, able to strike a target 190 miles off – though only obsolete, short-ranged versions of this have been supplied to Ukraine.

But the best armies operate a mix of howitzers and rockets – and for a good reason. The howitzers fire lots of smaller rounds, closer and faster. The launchers fire fewer and bigger rounds, farther but slower. If the Americans can’t finally acquire a new howitzer after three decades of trying, they risk losing that close and fast firepower.

America’s ‘God of War’ is now many decades old. The US Army can’t replace it (2024)

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