The U.S. military needs a longer stick.
For decades, U.S. aircraft carriers—effectively mobile airfields—and forward air bases have been the foreign policy muscle of then-President Theodore Roosevelt’s adage “speak softly and carry a big stick.”
But that big stick has lost its clout in recent years, challenged by new Russian and Chinese missile systems that are amassed over hundreds, even thousands, of miles on the horizon.
With the various branches of the U.S. military scrambling to reinvent themselves for a renewed “great power competition,” the Army’s No. 1 priority is the development of its own long-reaching ground-launched missiles and artillery, known as “fires.”
This week, if all goes to plan, a smoke trail across the desert sky in New Mexico will bring a sigh of relief from U.S. generals in charge of the top modernization priority known as Long Range Precision Fires (LRPF), headed by Brig. Gen. John Rafferty.
“It is a very exciting time in the program,” Rafferty told The Epoch Times, ahead of the first test flight of the Precision Strike Missile (PrSM), scheduled for this sometime this week.
PrSM is one of several programs that fall into the LRPF, which is set to enter the field by 2023, four years ahead of its original schedule, accelerated by the Army’s modernization catalyst, Army Futures Command.
“While we’ve been concentrating our efforts in one particular area in the world, our adversaries have been investing in ways to offset our strategic and tactical advantages,” Rafferty said.
“Specifically, China and Russia have been investing in sophisticated integrated air defenses, in coastal defenses, in long-range ballistic missiles, long-range and high altitude radars, and if you combine all those things, they create this layered standoff, which is often referred to as anti-access area denial (A2AD).”
This “anti-access bubble” hampers the support of regional allies—and potentially threatens to push the United States out of now-vulnerable permanent positions such as deep-water ports and air bases.
Rafferty’s LRFP program is developing various longer-reaching U.S. weapons—from beefing up the range of howitzers to supporting a hypersonic missile with a reported potential range of thousands of miles. There’s even a program to prototype a monster cannon that can spit projectiles hundreds of miles.
In August, the possibility of other longer-range missiles was opened with the dissolution of a Cold War treaty that had clipped the range of U.S. ground-launched missiles to 499 kilometers (310 miles).
Not Going Toe-to-Toe
But despite wanting to turn the tables on adversaries with their own long-range artillery, the U.S. generals aren’t planning on going toe-to-toe with the Chinese or Russian artillery. They still want to fight on their own terms.
“Our adversaries are artillery-centric forces. We are not—we are a combined arms force,” said Rafferty. “Their investment in long-range fires separates us at the tactical level [within the battlefield] and prevents us from fighting as a combined arms team, which is really what our strength is.”
“We are never going to be cannon-for-cannon, rocket-for-rocket, missile-for-missile with an artillery-centric adversary,” he said.
“What we need is enough of this capability to create these windows of opportunity—whether it’s for the joint force, for the Air Force, the maritime force, or for a combat brigade team to make its bid.”
Creating those windows of opportunity is part of the U.S. military game plan called Multi-Domain Operations (MDO).
“Multi-Domain Operations basically argues that you have these long-range systems and that the range rings around them generate layers of stand-off which have to be penetrated,” Jack Watling, a research fellow in land warfare at London-based defense think tank RUSI, told The Epoch Times. “So you have to knock out the long-range systems that are threatening you or suppress them.”
That could be achieved through various methods, including jamming the kill chains that adversaries rely on for targeting, he said.
“That enables you to penetrate the space that they have denied to you and then can burst the bubble—which is termed ‘disintegration’ in MDO—by more conventional military means.”
But being able to get through the anti-access bubble is just one piece of the puzzle.
“One of the really important things to bear in mind is that it doesn’t win you the battle,” Watling said. “It enables you to show up for the battle. You still need to be able to conduct high-intensity operations once you actually get into that denied space. It fixes a very specific problem, but it doesn’t diminish your need for effective high-intensity close combat.”
Watling said long-reaching artillery does more than constrict the main military hardware.
“If I am intending to conduct military operations, I need fuel, and I need food, and I need to be able to move that around the battlefield and stockpile it in places. Now, if you have very significant levels of range, then you may be able to start hitting those stockpiles and logistical enablers, which means that you can really hold my forces back away from getting close.”
Ground-based missiles are much harder to target and hold at a distance than ships and aircraft, if they practice good survivability measures, such as camouflage, concealment, deception, and as well as all-important tactical mobility, defense analyst Tim Walton told The Epoch Times.
Walton, a research fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, offered the example of how the United States and its allies struggled to locate scud missiles in Iraq, despite it being a relatively featureless desert.
“If you are operating in an environment with forests, hills, and mountains, it could be even more challenging to be able to successfully track and target those systems,” he said.
But don’t be led astray by the word “precision” in the title of the Long Range Precision Fires program—these are weapons of large-scale warfare.
“I wish that ‘precision’ wasn’t in our title, because it is a little bit of a loaded term,” Rafferty said, in reference to the connotation of “precision-guided” weapons with counterinsurgency strikes designed to reduce collateral damage.
“We are designing these things for large-scale ground combat where mass and rate of fire are as important as accuracy. So that’s how we have to approach it.”
“I just prefer to say accuracy. For these systems to be effective, they have to be accurate.”
Cold War Era Nuclear Treaty Melts
LRPF comes under the auspices of the newly minted Army Futures Command, created in 2018 to drive what is described by many analysts as the biggest Army reorganization in 45 years, in line with the Trump administration’s National Defense Strategy.
That strategy spelled out for the first time that the United States needed to gear up for an era of renewed great power competition with Russia and China.
In the past 15 years, China quietly tripled its annual military spending to an estimated $200 billion, with a clear focus on leveraging the latest developments such as artificial intelligence (AI), cloud computing, and long-range ballistic and hypersonic missiles to unbalance the U.S. military.
Some analysts accuse the United States of being asleep at the wheel or of geopolitical naivety after the end of the Cold War.
But when it comes to long-range missiles, there was another reason that China leaped ahead: the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty that banned the development of ground-launched missiles with a range of 500–5,500 kilometers (310–3,400 miles) to restrict nuclear capabilities.
Because nuclear warheads can easily be swapped with conventional warheads, the treaty also banned the development of conventional missiles.
Walton recently co-authored a report, titled “Leveling the Playing Field: Reintroducing Theater-Range Missiles in a Post-INF World,” published by the CBSA.
Walton said, “Because China wasn’t part of the INF treaty, it had amassed the world’s largest and most sophisticated arsenal of ground-launched intermediate-range missiles, with a range of different ballistic and cruise missiles that could be fired from the ground and could hold different targets, including U.S. allies and partners as well as U.S. forces throughout the Indo-Pacific, at risk.”
About 95 percent of China’s ground-based missiles have ranges beyond the INF limit, with around a dozen different systems.
The buildup of that intermediate-range arsenal prompted the Russians to suggest killing off the INF treaty in the early 2000s.
“The U.S. said, ‘No, let’s continue,'” Walton said. “The Russians eventually went ahead and developed their own systems secretly and then began to test them.”
In 2014, the United States officially stated that Russia was in violation of the treaty, which was finally abandoned this year.
The LRPF program predates the dissolution of the INF treaty.
Walton said that with the INF treaty gone, various other possibilities for intermediate-range, ground-based conventional missiles have been opened. Converting current ship- or air-launched missiles that weren’t restricted by the INF treaty would be the most straightforward way to bring in new missiles.
“The lowest hanging fruit would be the Tomahawk system, which is currently ship-launched or submarine-launched,” Walton said.
Another option is to bring back the Pershing II missile system that was sacrificed for the INF treaty some 30 years ago.
According to the CBSA report, operationally relevant numbers of different ground-launched theater-range missiles could be fielded within five to 10 years.
Meanwhile, in the Army’s LRPF program, only the PrSM system, originally restricted to 499 kilometers (310 miles), is affected by the INF dissolution.
Adjusting the Software
PrSM is the replacement for the United States’ current tactical missile.
Rafferty said the Army talked to their PrSM vendors during the INF treaty “cooling off” period and asked how far the missiles might go.
Just as car manufacturers can tune an engine for efficiency, speed, power, or emissions, so too can the weapons manufacturers tweak a rocket motor’s performance.
“After we get a few test shots under our belt, we’ll adjust the requirement to the base missile,” Rafferty said, noting that they expect to get it out to around 700 kilometers (435 miles).
“It’s important to remind ourselves that this INF restriction for all those years did not simply limit what we could put in the field, it also limited where we were investing research,” he said. “There’s no market for anything beyond 499 kilometers [310 miles] in an Army system, so why would you invest in it?”
Rafferty said the push is to get the first PrSM missile in the field by 2023. The military can then use that as a “base missile” to build further capabilities—such as seeker capability, extended range, and smart submunitions, with the first upgrade expected in 2025.
Alongside PrSM and supporting the hypersonic boost-glide program, Rafferty’s team is running two cannon programs: the Extended Range Cannon Artillery and the Strategic Long-
The first is a drastic upgrade to the 155 mm M109A6 Paladin howitzer, almost doubling its range to 70 kilometers (43 miles), and adding an autoloader.
“We are pushing the envelope in every aspect of this program,” Rafferty said. “We are still determining the right propellant formulations to get the 70 kilometers.”
One of the challenges, he said, is that the projectiles are reaching higher altitudes where the air is thinner, making it harder for the guiding fins on the back of the projectile to direct the flight.
The Strategic Long Range Cannon was originally said to be aiming for a 1,000-mile range, although Rafferty describes a more modest goal of “hundreds of miles.”
This cannon is a science and technology demonstration program, with a prototype slated for 2023.
Where to Put Them?
The geopolitically thorny question of where longer-range systems might be based can be put off—for now—Walton said.
“Even though the U.S. is developing these systems as fast as it can, it will take years before it is able to field them in operationally relevant numbers,” he said.
So that leaves the United States with time for conversations with allies.
“I think it’s premature to try to put any of these countries on the spot and say which ones are going to base the systems,” Walton said. “I think if the U.S. were to try to do that, it would probably backfire.”
But even if allies or partners are unwilling or unable to take the geopolitical heat of basing them, there are other options, he said.
The first is to simply site some systems on U.S. soil. Systems with long enough range could be based in U.S. territories in the Mariana Islands or in Guam—or even Alaska.
The second option is to base them on U.S. territory, but send them out for exercises or in the event of a conflict.
“The U.S. could deploy these systems forward for some period of time to train with allies and partners and exercise how they would possibly be used in a contingency, and then send them back to the U.S.,” Walton said.
Compressing the Process
But while decisions on basing can wait, in the here and now of the LRPF program, things are progressing at breakneck speed under the catalyzing influence of Army Futures Command (AFC), Rafferty said.
Alongside the LRPF, the AFC’s modernization plan lists five other key areas: armored vehicles, vertical lift, missile defense, network technologies, and soldier lethality.
AFC isn’t about feeding new ideas and priorities into the previous 20-year acquisition cycles. AFC is the recognition that the rapid pace of tech development requires forging a new approach that melds the spirit of the light-footed tech start-up with military discipline and strategy.
“That’s really what’s key to the Army Futures Command,” Rafferty said. “It’s not that we are cutting corners or skipping steps. It’s that we are compressing activity.”
Rather than running through processes sequentially, they are running them in parallel wherever possible. Sometimes, even in reverse.
For example, rather than using the technical requirement document to rigidly drive the prototype, officials are using the first prototype to inform the technical requirement. And rather than waiting for a finished weapons system to roll off the end of a production line, doctrines are being built up in parallel.
But there will be no compromise when it comes to safety.
“The critical aspects of design, prototype, test, delivery—those are rigid practices that we are not skipping because they are important,” Rafferty said. “We are just compressing them.”