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Artillery Gets Smart, Mortars Still Dumb

6:24 PM, May 29, 2007 • By MICHAEL GOLDFARB
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InsideDefense.com reports today on the "first combat firing of a 155 mm precision artillery shell in Iraq." The shell, the XM982 Excalibur, was fired at an al Qaeda safe house earlier this month:

Standing on a rooftop some 700 meters from the safehouse with his fire support team, Clausen [commander of the 1st Battalion, 82nd Field Artillery Regiment] said he witnessed two consecutive rounds penetrate the target: "Never in my wildest imagination as a field artilleryman did I expect to see two consecutive rounds go through a roof into a house and have the effects that we needed to destroy that particular target."

It all sounds very impressive--Clausen adds, "We're looking to improve efficiency in everything we do. Precision means you need fewer rounds, and fewer man hours in moving large numbers of rounds...That's how you cut the logistics tail."

Precision guided artillery has a short history. The Army developed a laser guided 155mm projectile called Copperhead in the 1980s, and the round was used in combat in the first Gulf War. But the Copperhead was expensive, and laser targeting requires a high cloud deck and a soldier on the ground to illuminate the target--it wasn't ideal and the program was killed. But Excalibur may finally give the Army the guided munition it's been looking for.

Still, not everyone's convinced. This morning I spoke with Stuart Koehl, a military analyst at Johns Hopkins University's Center for Transatlantic Relations, who called the strike "a stunt, because they didn't have to use an artillery round, they could have used an airplane--it would have been a lot cheaper." I also spoke with WEEKLY STANDARD contributor Tom Donnelly, who said that, "without being dismissive, I would kind of agree....We're hardly suffering from a want of firepower in Iraq." But Globalsecurity.org's John Pike took the opposite view--"JDAM [the GPS guided Joint Direct Attack Munition] is widely regarded as having revolutionized aerial warfare, and things like Excalibur, I think, have the potential to do that with artillery."

Koehl says the question is whether "the increased lethality [is] worth the increased cost as compared to conventional artillery rounds, [particularly] when one takes 'non-lethal' effects such as suppression and disruption into account." Which is to say, "I didn't have to hit a tank or an APC with a $50,000 golden BB round, because firing a couple of dozen [high explosive] or DPICM rounds could have the same effect at something like $200 [per round]."

Of course, American troops aren't targeting tanks, they're targeting insurgents in urban areas, where firing a couple dozen rounds would mean a lot of collateral damge. Still, Koehl says, "in counterinsurgency this kind of thing is mainly irrelevant. If I really need the long-range indirect fires, I've got total air supremacy, I've got all-weather capability, I really don't need an artillery round when I could drop it from an airplane. It just makes a lot more sense to have something right there on the scene shooting from a much shorter range...a JDAM dropped from overhead is going to go right down the pipe, no matter what." Pike disagreed though, saying that "if all I want to do is blow up one building, JDAM's just too much of a good thing."