Why Army artillery is about to get much more accurate
The US Army is developing precision-guided 155mm rounds that are longer range than existing shells and able to conduct combat missions in a GPS-denied war environment.
The Precision Guidance Kit Modernization (PGK-M) is now being developed to replace the standard PGK rounds, which consist of a unguided 155 round with a GPS-fuze built into it; the concept with the original PGK, which first emerged roughly 10 years ago, was to bring a greater amount of precision to historically unguided artillery fire.
Now, Army developers with the Army's Program Executive Office Ammunition at Picatinny Arsenal are taking the technology to a new level by improving upon the range, accuracy, and functionality of the weapon. Perhaps of greatest importance, the emerging PGK-M shell is engineered such that it can still fire with range and accuracy in a war environment where GPS guidance and navigation technology is compromised or destroyed.
The emerging ammunition will be able to fire from standard 155mm capable weapons such as an Army M777 lightweight towed howitzer and M109 howitzer.
Spc. Avery Lebron Johnson Jr. (R), a cannon crewmember in 1st Platoon, Archer Battery, Field Artillery Squadron, 2d Cavalry Regiment guides a m155 round into a M777 howitzer Aug. 5, 2017 while training in the Vaziani Training Area, Republic of Georgia during Noble Partner 17. Noble Partner is a multinational training exercise in support of Georgia's second light infantry company contribution to the NATO Response Force. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Jennifer Bunn, 2d Cavalry Regiment)
"PGK-M will provide enhanced performance against a broad spectrum of threats. In addition, PGK-M will be interoperable with the Army's new long-range artillery projectiles, which are currently in parallel development," Audra Calloway, spokeswoman for the Army's Picatinny Arsenal, told Warrior Maven.
BAE Systems is among several vendors currently developing PGK-M with the Army's Defense Ordnance Technology Consortium. BAE developers say the kits enable munitions to make in-flight course corrections even in GPS-jammed environments.
"Our experience with munitions handling, gun launch shock, interior ballistics, and guidance and fire control uniquely positions us to integrate precision technology into the Army's artillery platforms," David Richards, Program Manager, Strategic Growth Initiatives for our Precision Guidance and Sensing Solutions group, BAE Systems, told Warrior Maven in a statement.
This technological step forward is quite significant for the Army, as it refines its attack technologies in a newly-emerging threat environment. The advent of vastly improved land-fired precision weaponry began about 10 years ago during the height of counterinsurgency warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan. GPS-guided 155m Excalibur rounds and the Army's GPS and inertial measurement unit weapon, the Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System, burst onto the war scene as a way to give commanders more attack options.
Traditional suppressive fire, or "area weapons" as they have been historically thought of, were not particularly useful in combat against insurgents. Instead, since enemies were, by design, blended among civilians, Army attack options had little alternative but to place the highest possible premium upon precision guidance.
GMLRS, for example, was used to destroy Taliban leaders in Afghanistan, and Excalibur had its combat debut in the 2007, 2008 timeframe. With a CEP of roughly 1-meter, Excalibur proved to be an invaluable attack mechanism against insurgents. Small groups of enemy fighters, when spotted by human intel or overhead ISR, could effectively be attacked without hurting innocents or causing what military officials like to call "collateral damage." PGK was initially envisioned as a less expensive, and also less precise, alternative to Excalibur.
The rise of near-peer threats, and newer technologies commensurate with larger budgets and fortified military modernization ambitions, have created an entirely new war environment confronting the Army of today and tomorrow. Principle among these circumstances is, for example, China's rapid development of Anti-Satellite, or ASAT weapons.
Marines with Charlie Battery, 1st Battalion, 12th Marine Regiment, fire an M982 Excalibur round from an M777 howitzer during a recent fire support mission. (US Marine Corps photo)
This ongoing development, which has both the watchful eye and concern of US military strategists and war planners, underscores a larger and much-discussed phenomenon – that of the United States military being entirely too reliant upon GPS for combat ops. GPS, used in a ubiquitous way across the Army and other military services, spans small force-tracking devices to JDAMs dropped from the air and much more, of course including the aforementioned land weapons.
Advanced jamming techniques, electronic warfare and sophisticated cyberattacks have radically altered the combat equation – making GPS signals vulnerable to enemy disruption. Accordingly, there is a broad consensus among military developers and industry innovators that far too many necessary combat technologies are reliant upon GPS systems. Weapons targeting, ship navigation and even small handheld solider force-tracking systems all rely upon GPS signals to operate.
Accordingly, the Army and other services are now accelerating a number of technical measures and emerging technologies designed to create what's called Position, Navigation and Timing (PNT), or GPS-like guidance, navigation, and targeting, without actually needing satellites. This includes ad-hoc software programmable radio networks, various kinds of wave-relay connectivity technologies and navigational technology able to help soldiers operate without GPS-enabled force tracking systems.
At the same time, the Army is working with the Air Force on an integrated strategy to protect satellite coms, harden networks and also better facilitate joint-interoperability in a GPS-denied environment.
The Air Force Space strategy, for instance, is currently pursuing a multi-fold satellite strategy to include "dispersion," "disaggregation" and "redundancy." At the same time, the service has also identified the need to successfully network the force in an environment without GPS. Naturally, this is massively interwoven with air-ground coordination. Fighters, bombers and even drones want to use a wide range of secure sensors to both go after targets and operate with ground forces.
Today, the Air Force operates the largest GPS constellation in history with more than 30 satellites. (U.S. Air Force Graphic by Maureen Stewart)
The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) is working with industry to test and refine an emerging radio frequency force-tracking technology able to identify ground forces' location without needing to rely upon GPS.
Given all this, it is by no means insignificant that the Army seeks guided rounds able to function without GPS. Should they engage in near-peer, force-on-force mechanized ground combat against a major, technologically advanced adversary, they may indeed need to launch precision attacks across wide swaths of terrain – without GPS.
Finally, by all expectations, modern warfare is expected to increasingly become more and more dispersed across wider swaths of terrain, while also more readily crossing domains, given rapid emergence of longer-range weapons and sensors.
This circumstance inevitably creates the need for both precision and long-range strike. As one senior Army weapons developer with PEO Missiles and Space told Warrior Maven in an interview last Fall — Brig. Gen. Robert Rasch — … "it is about out-ranging the enemy."