Army Secretary Christine Wormuth remarked this month at the Association of the U.S. Army’s annual conference in Washington that 2023 will be “the year of long-range precision fires.”
She was referring to the fact that several munition programs with ranges far exceeding what was common in Army fires only a generation ago will begin reaching the force in that year.
Some of the new systems, carrying conventional (non-nuclear) warheads, will have the ability to destroy pinpoint targets hundreds of miles away—even if they are hardened, even if they are moving.
An unusual feature of this emerging revolution in Army fires is that it is being driven by the emphasis of the 2018 national defense strategy on deterring or defeating aggression by China.
What’s unusual is that, to the extent China was deemed a threat in the past, it was generally thought to be an Air Force and Navy problem.
The U.S. Army was believed to have little more than a supporting role in the Western Pacific—at least, away from the Korean Peninsula.
However, that is changing fast thanks to the central role of innovation in Army modernization plans and doctrine.
Today’s Army no longer thinks of itself as a Euro-centric ground force that strives for self-sufficiency in waging war.
It approaches warfare as a joint and multi-domain enterprise.
The mental boundaries that once confined Army planners to a tightly-defined set of competencies have given way to a more fluid thought process in which operations in the air, at sea, on orbit and across the electromagnetic spectrum figure prominently.
For those who have not followed the evolution in Army thinking, it may be a little difficult to grasp how the Army is posturing for combat in the Western Pacific.
So here are five precepts driving the Army’s highest-priority modernization effort, long-range precision fires, that explain why the world’s preeminent land force could play a decisive role in the watery expanses of the Western Pacific.
Technology advances provide unprecedented range and precision. The artillery and missiles with which the U.S. Army entered the new century weren’t adequate for the compressed distances of Europe, much less the vast expanses of the Pacific. Russian forces, which traditionally have focused on artillery, often outranged those of NATO.
However, new technology has enabled Army fires to begin leaping far beyond what near-peer competitors can achieve. Lockheed Martin
Like all Army fires, the new missile will be ground-mobile, as will a Mid-Range Capability that adapts Navy cruise missiles and Standard Missile-6 technology to novel fire missions. The cruise missiles, based on Raytheon’s Tomahawk, will have a range of at least 1,000 miles and be able to destroy warships in transit plus hardened land targets like command centers.
The Standard Missile-6, also a Raytheon product, was until recently thought of mainly as an air defense weapon, but the Navy and Army now are expanding its operational applications to include surface targets.
Beyond that the Army is looking at hypervelocity glide weapons with a range exceeding 1,700 miles, and a strategic cannon that potentially can reach far, far beyond the range of any previous cannon—hundreds of miles at least.
All of these weapons afford pinpoint accuracy, thanks to their reliance on joint sensor and networking assets that enable the Army to find targets outside its traditional operating envelope.
By fusing sensor collections from diverse sources, the Army can target everything from Chinese amphibious ships to remote airfields to command centers directing combat operations.
These capabilities are so far beyond anything the Army had in the past that they will require new doctrine, new training and new organizational constructs.
Diverse capabilities deter aggressors. The Army is well aware that the U.S. Air Force and Navy are capable of delivering fearsome fires against Chinese forces in a war. The purpose of Army fires in the Western Pacific is to complement these capabilities with additional threats that thoroughly complicate Beijing’s planning for war.
All of the Army’s future fires are designed to be readily transported in an island-hopping campaign that China would have great difficulty tracking. They might deploy to Taiwan, or to the Ryukyus, or to the Philippines, or to Vietnam, or to all four places simultaneously.
Some of the Army fires will be ballistic, some will be air-breathing, some will be hypersonic gliders. They will have variable ranges and warheads tailored to specific effects. Collectively, they can cover the full range of threats that might arise in China’s littoral regions, including maritime threats.
Being confronted with such diversity, especially once other U.S. forces are in the mix, would present Beijing with insoluble wartime dilemmas—dilemmas likely to deter aggression.
Mobile land-based launchers are easy to hide. Unlike air bases and warships at sea, the mobile launchers that will carry Army next-generation fires will be nearly impossible to find, fix and destroy. There will be too many of them—the service plans to buy 2,400 Precision Strike Missiles—and they can be readily concealed in island terrain.
So China’s ability to preempt the danger posed by Army fires will be limited at best.
While Beijing might conceivably elect to target the handful of nearby bases capable of accommodating U.S. heavy bombers, and force U.S. surface warships to stand off from China’s coasts, finding hundreds of Army ground launchers that are constantly moving would be a Herculean task well beyond the capacity of Chinese forces.
Army fires cover gaps in other joint fires. While the Air Force and Navy would necessarily take a leading role in any Sino-American conflict, there are potential deficiencies in their capabilities that the Army can help to remedy.
For instance, by 2030 all four of the Navy’s dedicated cruise-missile carrying submarines will have exited the force. The Navy would also like to retire all of its Ticonderoga-class cruisers and cease deliveries of Arleigh Burke destroyers. The programs the Navy has in place to replace these warships don’t adequately compensate for the loss of firepower, so in an extended conflict U.S. sea-based forces could run out of suitable munitions for countering Chinese moves.
The Air Force will have a limited number of bases and bombers with which to prosecute strikes against Chinese forces, and using nuclear-capable aircraft to deliver conventional strikes against targets inside China could inadvertently lead to escalation.
Adding U.S. Army long-range precision fires to the mix of joint assets in the Western Pacific would tend to compensate for these deficiencies, while giving regional commanders the broadest possible array of warfighting options.
Systems suitable for the Pacific meet range needs in Europe. Army planners haven’t forgotten Europe. The need to extend the reach of Army fires originated in concerns about the growing range of Russian artillery and missiles. However, advanced fires being developed with China is mind are readily adaptable to the European theater.
Indeed, the fact that such fires can reliably destroy the vast array of Russian military targets without resort to nuclear-capable systems arguably contributes a stabilizing element to future combat operations.
For the foreseeable future America will be seeking to deter other nuclear powers from conventional aggression in areas adjacent to their borders. Being able to do that with purely conventional means makes planning for war a simpler process, and Army fires more relevant to any region in which great-power rivalry arises.
Lockheed and Raytheon contribute to my think tank.