Army Asks To Shift Millions To Fast-Track “Hit-To-Kill” Armor-Busting Artillery Shell

The U.S. Army wants to shift more than $24 million in funds from other parts of its budget to help fast track the development of a new 155mm anti-armor “hit-to-kill” artillery shell. Based on the M982 Excalibur GPS-enabled inertial navigation system-guided round, the projectile is the first step in a multi-phase effort to replace existing cluster munition artillery shells with new options that are more precise, effective, and reliable.

Inside Defense was first to report the Army’s budget request on July 8, 2019. The $24.4 million the service wants for its artillery shell program, which is formally known as Cannon Delivered Area Effects Munition (C-DAEM) Increment I, is part of a larger Pentagon proposal to Congress to shift $2.8 billion worth of funds allocated within certain portions of the 2018 Fiscal Year defense budget to other priorities. 

“Funds are required to support the demonstration of a long-range hit-to-kill (HTK) munition to address the Extended Range Cannon Artillery (ERCA) program’s Cannon Delivered Area Effects Munition (C-DAEM) Increment I initiative,” according to the request, which Inside Defense obtained. The ERCA program, which The War Zone has covered in depth previously here and here, is working to develop new 155mm cannons for self-propelled and towed howitzers to extend the range of those weapons out to more than 40 miles. 

The reprogramming request describes the new round as using a modified version of the “airframe” from the combat-proven 155mm M982 Excalibur GPS-guided artillery shell. An “armored target seeker” will allow the projectile to home in moving armored vehicles, including tanks, armored personnel carriers, and self-propelled anti-aircraft and artillery pieces. 

It is not clear what guidance system shell might use, but millimeter wave radar, imaging infrared seekers, and laser guidance packages are popular options. It is possible that the round might use a multi-mode seeker, which would make it more flexible, adaptable to different combat environments, and resistant to enemy countermeasures, such as jamming. Multi-mode guidance packages are increasingly popular in both ground- and air-launched precision-guided munitions, such as Raytheon’s StormBreaker smart bomb for the U.S. Air Force, formerly known as Small Diameter Bomb II, in general, for exactly these reasons.

Otherwise, the design of the shell is also still largely unknown. “Hit-to-kill” typically refers to rounds that hit their targets with sufficient force to destroy them without the help of an explosive charge. They may use an inert penetrator, typically made from dense metals such as tungsten or depleted uranium, to help pierce the armor on their targets. But it’s not clear whether the C-DAEM Increment I round will be a single “unitary” projectile or be a cluster munition round with multiple hit-to-kill submunitions inside.

“The hit-to-kill effort: (1) upgrades the mature Excalibur airframe with an armored target seeker, (2) is the quickest solution to address four extremely high risk gaps by defeating moving and imprecisely located armored targets at long ranges, (3) is fully compatible with current Army howitzers, and (4) is low risk for compatibility with future howitzers,” the request says request. “Also, the effort will significantly reduce the cost per kill and improves the stowed kills of cannon artillery compared to existing non policy-compliant cluster munitions against medium and heavy armor.”

This latter point refers to then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ major policy shift in 2008 that called for systematically removing all cluster munitions from U.S. service that had an average failure rate of greater than one percent. This was driven by high failure rates among existing cluster munitions, including 155mm cluster munition artillery shells, also known as Dual-Purpose Improved Conventional Munitions (DPICM).

A typical 155mm DPICM round contains almost 90 individual submunitions, which are designed to work against both armored vehicles and soft targets, including personnel in the open. Unfortunately, DPICM rounds have a high failure rate, with one Army study from 2000 finding that, on average, 14 percent of submunitions failed to explode, leaving unexploded ordnance strewn across the battlefield that could be hazardous to both friendly forces and innocent civilians.

The C-DAEM program, which dates back to at least 2017, has been exploring various potential replacement options for existing cluster munitions shells. However, in 2017, then-Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan issued a memo indefinitely delaying the final removal of non-compliant cluster munitions, a controversial decision regarding an already controversial policy that The War Zone

previously explored in detail. But the Army’s desire to accelerate the development of the Increment I shell shows that the service remains very interested in alternative ammunition types.

It’s interesting to note that this would not be the first time the Army has adopted a precision-guided anti-armor artillery shell. Martin Marietta, now part of Lockheed Martin, developed the laser-guided M712 Copperhead in 1975, with the same general mission in mind. 

The Army, as well as the Marine Corps, had expected Copperhead to offer a more effective option for artillery units when engaging enemy armored formations on the move, even compared to cluster munitions. However, this would have been a complicated proposition given the need for personnel closer to the enemy to designate individual targets with a laser.

During the initial stages of Operation Desert Storm in 1990, U.S. troops employed M712s primarily as a precision weapon against high priority static targets, such as radar stations and bunkers. U.S. forces only ever used Copperheads on a limited basis and a relatively small number of American allies and partners ever bought the rounds. In 2017, Lebanon did fire hundreds of the shells to significant effect against ISIS targets along the country’s border with Syria.

While C-DAEM Increment I may still have laser-guided functionality, a millimeter wave radar and/or imaging infrared seeker would give it an important fire-and-forget capability that Copperhead lacked. This may help the shells be a more practical and efficient option for striking mobile opponents when their exact position is unknown, too. 

The request for the shift in funds is also partly in response to a separate request from U.S. Army Pacific to develop a “Multi-Domain Cannon Artillery” capability, which implies the precision-guided anti-armor round might have a shore-based anti-ship role in the future, too. The Army has already been exploring a variety of anti-ship capabilities, including ground-launched anti-ship cruise missiles and employing guided artillery rockets against maritime targets as it looks to improve its readiness for a high-end conflict in the Pacific region. The Marines have similar requirements and may be just as interested in the C-DAEM Increment one round as they were in the older M712.

But if the new round is unitary, it remains to be seen whether using one shell to destroy or damage one target, on land or at sea, will be as cost-effective as the Army hopes. The shells will need to have some method of deconflicting themselves and not all homing in on the same target during massed fires to have any real chance of quickly destroying enemy armored formations, as well. Networking the rounds together might be one option to provide this capability.

This is one of the reasons why cluster munitions have persisted in U.S. military service. These weapons remain valuable options for targeting large concentrations of enemy forces, including those on the move, particularly when they pop-up suddenly and might threaten to overwhelm lightly-defended friendly positions. 

The Army isn’t necessarily convinced that hit-to-kill shell will be the only new ammunition type they’ll need to fully replace DPICM, either. There is already plan for an Increment 2 round to engage clusters of lightly armored and stationary targets, as well as enemy personnel. In the past, the C-DAEM program had evaluated a number of cluster munition shells with “smart” bomblets that have multiple modes of operation and can sense targets, as well as unguided submunitions with greatly improved reliability.

Praxis, an 155mm cluster munitions shell containing four smart submunitions, is just one of the rounds the Army has evaluated as part of the C-DAEM program., US Army

At the same time, the service has made it clear it is focusing on the Increment I design first because it is lower risk, given that will leverages much of the existing M982 Excalibur design. If Congress approves the cash infusion into the program, Army artillery units could be looking to recieve the first of what might become a family of new artillery rounds sooner rather than later.

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